The Debate

The Trouble With South Asian Regionalism

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The Debate

The Trouble With South Asian Regionalism

The prospects for collective action remain as dim as ever.

The Trouble With South Asian Regionalism
Credit: Flickr/MEAPhotogallery

On May 5, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched a satellite to boost telecommunication and broadcast services for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) members. Although Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka will enjoy expanded communication privileges funded and catalyzed by India, Pakistan decided not to participate in this joint venture.

Pakistan’s decision speaks to the difficulty of regional cooperation in South Asia. An unclear understanding of multilateralism, an increase in nationalism provoked by historic bilateral relations, and Pakistan’s isolation (whether self-inflicted or regionally imposed), all contribute to the challenges of collective regional mobility in South Asia.

South Asian countries must understand the long-term benefits of regional multilateral cooperation. In successful multilateral agreements, an even-playing field can assist all cooperating countries in developing their economies, promoting good governance, and supporting cross-border infrastructure projects. In South Asia, multilateral cooperation can support the development of stronger transportation systems, collective action against climate change, agricultural best practices, and contributions to scientific development. If the region can act collectively, South Asia is well posed to succeed globally with a diverse range of natural resources and human capital to match the needs of its growing economies.

Unfortunately, collective regional goals have not been met despite decades of attempted cooperation. South Asia’s intra-regional FDI percentage is only 3 percent, compared to the Association of South East Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) 25 percent. Of course, SAARC was established a few decades after ASEAN and the political complexity of South Asia contributes significantly to the delay in its operational abilities.

The need to maintain nationalistic pride has made South Asian nations less willing to compromise for fear of looking weak to their constituents. Deep political entanglements between India and PakistanAfghanistan and Pakistan, and Bangladesh and Pakistan, combined with embedded nationalism, has provoked mistrust, skepticism, and aggressive behavior between South Asian states in multilateral engagements. When India, the most developed country in the region, begets nationalism as cause to reactionary politics, smaller actors also use it to decline compromise, and the situation creates a repetitive cycle.

For example, the Kashmir conflict dictates the dynamics between India and Pakistan, and India has often refused to compromise in SAARC negotiations with Pakistan as to not seem weak. This comes at the expense of economic stability for the entire region.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s decision to not participate in the regional communication initiated by India, albeit not a surprise, is a huge missed opportunity for the developing state. After the Indian army suffered large casualties in the Uri attacks from Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistani terrorist organization, Pakistan did little in response to assist India, perpetuating animosity between the two neighbors. In retaliation, India, along with all the members of SAARC besides Nepal, refused to attend the 19th SAARC Summit in Islamabad to protest Pakistan’s inaction.

Since then, collective animosity against Pakistan has deteriorated relations between Pakistan and the other regional organization members.  The ISRO satellite was an effort to improve communication in participating countries and assist in coordinating disaster management efforts. Pakistan could have benefited from this partnership as Pakistan is prone to earthquakes and landslides. Instead, Pakistan decided to retaliate to the boycott against the Islamabad SAARC meeting by refusing to participate in the next major SAARC activity.

Jaded by Pakistan’s political games, many SAARC members have been looking towards other regional cooperation initiatives that exclude Pakistan, such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectorial Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal Initiative (BBIN). Following the stalemate of the 2016 SAARC summit, member countries have been significantly more proactive in BIMSTEC and BBIN and find themselves more optimistic of regional progress through these initiatives.

Many BIMSTEC and BBIN member countries appreciate that Pakistan is not a member because the country poses several political and security challenges in achieving multilateral goals, as can be seen with SAARC. As India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar stated earlier this year, “[SAARC] is an organization which has been made ineffective due to insecurity of one member.”

Still, SAARC and other regional cooperation projects in South Asia will not be successful unless the participating countries understand the dichotomy between bilateral relations and multilateral cooperation as well as the best approaches to both. An all-encompassing South Asian regional cooperation without the second largest country in the subcontinent, Pakistan, is unachievable and can consequently hinder progress for all actors involved. Pakistan’s seclusion could deter its own development and a failed state in the region could cost more to Pakistan’s regional partners than trying to accommodate Pakistan’s participation in regional projects.

South Asian regional cooperation will best function if all actors involved are active participants. Until South Asian nations can place more importance on regional cooperation than political rivalry, they will have a difficult time achieving true prosperity and security for the region.

Angel Sharma is the South Asia Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She works in the international development sector focusing on the rule of law and human rights at an international NGO. Angel received her MA in International Security from American University in 2016. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the organizations with which the author is affiliated.