Can SAARC be South Asia's EU?


How long will South Asia be a prisoner of politics?  And how long willpolitics will be a barrier to regional economic cooperation? These were the questions asked and debated at a recent conference in New Delhi I attended entitled “Transforming South Asia: Imperatives for Action.”

Organized by the Indian Council of World Affairs and Association of Asia Scholars, the two-day conference brought together scholars and academics from all the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations.

The agenda didn’t focus on how to resolve political disputes or reduce political tensions, but rather on how to bypass politics altogether and embrace economics to demolish the invisible wall that keeps the region’s countries aloof from each other. There was general agreement that the time has come for South Asia to rise above the mutual suspicion that has marked politics in the region, and engage with each other to claim the same space inthe global economy South Asia enjoyed before the advent of colonization. According to one estimate, the subcontinent made up two thirds of global GDP during the 18th century, compared with just 6 percent to 7 percent now.

To reclaim its space in the world, regional integration is a must, and the time has come for SAARC to help transform South Asia in the same way that the European Union has changed Europe.

“We have a moment in history which we should seize if we wish to transform South Asia,” said Indian National Security Advisor Shivshanker Menon during the opening address to the conference.

A concept paper from the ICWA argued that the real test for SAARC now is to benefit from the process of globalization through deeper regional integration, including eventually creating a South Asian economic union. To achieve this goal, a deliberate shift from “independence” to “interdependence” is needed, with identified priority areas to allow for smooth implementation.

There was consensus among participants that member nations, particularly India, need to change their mindset to achieve this. As the largest country, and as a rapidly growing economic power in the region, New Delhi needsto demonstrate the magnanimity of a big power and show a spirit of camaraderie in accommodating the wishes of its smaller neighbors.

Prof. Muinul Islam of Chittagong University, Bangladesh, underlined the need for open trade that excludes the building of fences along the Indo-Bangladesh border. Such barriers, he said, have deprivedthe people of the region from their historical, cultural and trade legacy. He said it has also created distrust about India in Dhaka, and he noted the highhandedness being shown by the Indian Border Security Forcein dealing with poor Bangladeshis who want to cross the border to trade local products.

A good trade relationship with Bangladesh is also vital for the development of India’s northeastern states, which share around 90 percent of their border with Bangladesh. Allowing easy transit across the border would not only boost the local economy on both sides, but could make the region a useful economic hub for India. Prof. Islam also suggested that should the economies of Bangladesh and northeastern India become more closely linked, economic prosperity would help neutralize the insurgency that currently flourishes in the region.

Delegates from Pakistan also expressed the need for engagement with India. Huma Baqai joint secretary of the Karachi Council on Foreign Relations, termed the recent granting of Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to India as a great leap forward in writing a new narrative of engagement between the two. She argued that Pakistan, despite opposition from its traditional anti-India groups, and despite protests from small traders, wants to enhance economic engagement with its neighbor. According to Huma, Islamabad wants to free itself from the prison of preexisting perceptions that have created a hotbed of terrorism. The gradual but steady assertion of democratic institutions in the country is an indication that traditional power centers and stakeholders are ceding ground to new forces that see Pakistan’s future as tied to economic engagement with its neighbors, particularly India.

What was particularly interesting was the presence of a five-member delegation from Afghanistan representing different institutions. Its members talked at length about the prevailing political situation in the country, talks with the Taliban and post-2014 scenarios. They all agreed that Afghanistan’s future lies in greater engagement with SAARC member countries rather than thepresence of NATO troops. They said that Afghanistan needn’t become a political battlefield for competing forces, and that it has the potential, through integration, to become an economic hub for South Asia.

Haroon Mir, a political analyst, expressed his desire to one day travel by bus from Kabul to New Delhi and then on to Lahore. He said he dreams of a day when the pomegranate of the Hindu Kush can be easily exported to markets in Delhi. Omar Sharifi,director of the American Institute of Afghan Studies, said that, “the future will require less blood andtreasure, and more strategic and enduring commitment that is clear and mutually dependable.”

SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda, an academic from Sri Lanka, stressed the need for South Asian nations to come together to liberate each other from economic backwardness. “It is our duty as fellow South Asians to liberate our partners, to make sure that everyone has a stake or share,” Tammita-Delgoda said. “This should be one of the tasks which we set ourselves. If we can’t, how can we hope to liberate ourselves? How can we hope to change South Asia?”

There was broad consensus among all participants that without India’s active engagement and enlightened vision, South Asia can’t achieve the dream of a “European Union.” They concluded that Germany and France, who managed to set their historical tensions and differences to one side, can serve as a model for India and Pakistan.

December 20, 2012 at 17:46

What is the definition of Asia? Asia certainly is not Europe with similar cultures and governments and interests.. There are democratic nations, there are powerful emperors, communists as head of the nations, communists fighting in the jungles, western style democracies, hybrid democracies and bla and bla. EU concept in Asia is a vague concept right now. But trying to define which Nation is Asian And which is not is an unjust judgement of Asia itself. Asia is a world by itself and it will remain diverse in terms of culture, society, economy and geo political interest forever.

Anees Ebrahem
March 22, 2012 at 15:50


Some sort of Pan-Asian union between East/South and Southeast Asia would be futile. A union can only become so big before cultural, politcal and economic differences start to destroy it. If SAARC (pan-South Asian) is to big and diverse to work then a pan-Asian one would be a complete failure. You’d be uniting some of the poorest and richest countries together. Rapidly devloping nations with stagnant ones. The EU also doesn’t have to deal with the wide varity of governments and political situations.

Like you said, Germany holds more dominace within the EU but still is nothing when compared to India’s. In addition the EU doesn’t have anything similar to a Pakistan vs. India issue. ASEAN, likewise works well because there is no dominant nation nor is their any major tensions like the Indo-Pak situation.

Not to mention the fact that nearly all South Asian nations have some sort of political instability. Pakistan and Islamism, India and Naxalism/Hinduvta (Though not as bad as the others), Sri Lanka just coming out of a Sinhala-Tamil civil war, Nepal and Communism etc.

March 22, 2012 at 01:23

Mazo, when you talk about the smaller gulf between Arabs and South Asia, are you suggesting some kind of regional organisation that links South Asia with West Asia? I have heard Turkish strategic thinkers talking along these lines – but this kind of thinking have traction in India?

As for India and East/SE Asia, hasn’t India’s historic links with these regions been quite significant with the early influences of India in SE Asia – and also China with the introduction of Buddhism there between the Han and Tang periods – with little comparable influence projected by India westwards? I am impressed when you go to places such as Malaysia with large Chinese and Indian communities and see for example, Chinese joining Hindu festivals and Indians visiting Chinese temples (such as the the Nan Tian temple in Australia) – whereas interactions like this between West Asians and Indians seem less common. I appreciate the economic differences between developed East Asian countries and South Asia are wide – and culture in the end may count for little – but it seems premature to write of links between South and East Asia, especially as industrialisiation takes hold in South Asia.

However, I agree that a greater Asian Union is not likely in the foreseeable future if only because such an entity will be a scary prospect for the rest of the world on account its sheer size and Asian governments will probably to want to go down a path that unnerves the rest of the world.

March 21, 2012 at 06:32

Fundamental problem with that concept is that South Asia, South East Asia and East Asia have little in common. The gulf between the Arabs and South Asia is in fact smaller than the gulf between South Asians and East Asians. Most East Asians don’t see – India, Pakistan etc as “Asians”, they are seen as separate. Further, economically, East Asia and South East Asia or South Asia are far apart. While Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are developed industrially, South Asia is still largely untouched by industrialization development. The policies that might be followed in Japan or South Korea would be meaningless in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh etc.
Japan’s aim to create an Asian union never included India but only included the East Asian states. India has been and will likely always be outside the “Asian” context. Even politically, India is very different from East Asian states which are very collectivist and have sedate democracies. India will likely continue to dominate South Asia and South Asian will resist this as far as possible but ultimately these states have no choice but to work together if the ASEAN and East Asia form economic and political blocks.

March 21, 2012 at 01:11

Anees, you point is a good one. However, in Europe too there is a dominant power, Germany, and the current situation may well mean that Germany will finally achieve the foreign policy objects that Germany since 1871 has sought, namely domination of the continent. But it is true that German preponderance in Europe is not quite on the scale of Indian preponderance of South Asia.

A better long term object might be a much wider Asian union that includes South, East and South East Asia. With both China and India included, as well as other significant powers such an Indonesia and Japan, smaller countries may have less fear about domination by a single hegemon. I think Japan in fact does have a scheme on the board that does away with the RMB, Rupee, Yen, Rupiah, SGD, AUD etc and replaces it with a single currency – but that may be some way off – the difficulties in the Euro zone may be deterrent to something like this happening in a hurry.

But it may be China and India that have a problem with surrendering sovreignty and being constrained by the structures a wider organisation. Still worth aiming for perhaps. Even in the case of a SAARC union, India may have difficulty with giving up part of her sovereignty. I do not think I can imagine say a Pakistani or Sri Lankan bureaucrat regulating the way Indians should make korma to fit a regional standard!

Anees Ebrahem
March 20, 2012 at 15:15

Europe consists a numeorus small countries, and the EU which unites them allows for a larger political/exonomic influence. South Asia consist of India at 75% of the population and seven other nations. Should SAARC ever become like the EU it’ll be dominated by India with Pakistan resisting every move.

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