Regional Cooperation Reinforced


Analysing the recently concluded SAARC summit in Kathmandu, Ambassador (Retd.) Sheel Kant Sharma maintains that the summit marks a forward movement of much significance in South Asian regional cooperation

The 18th SAARC Summit, which concluded reasonably well in Kathmandu on November 26-27, was preceded by almost a week of preparatory meetings. The meetings took place even at the levels of foreign secretaries and foreign ministers. Its success can be credited to the groundwork done by Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala to ensure a cheerful retreat at Dhulikhel. True to tradition, the summit was overshadowed by the body language of the prime ministers of India and Pakistan until the two opened up and appeared engaged in pleasantries before the cameras. The summit declaration reaffirmed the SAARC promise of regional cooperation and signing of at least one agreement, on electricity trading, from among three which were referred to the summit. Draft agreements on motorways and railways were deferred for a relook and finalisation by the transport ministers by next February.

Definite Steps Forward

SAARC has had to be content with such modest gains throughout the three decades of its existence. Despite cynicism by critics, the regional association has survived this time also and looks set for another positive summit in two years in Pakistan. The past decade, commencing with the Islamabad summit in 2004, saw major agreements like SAARC Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services, SAARC Development Fund, SAARC Food Bank, South Asia University, and several other accords. Their implementation has been lacklustre, but the latest summit has made stronger commitments than hitherto for moving forward with result-oriented, tangible action within set timelines and with an overarching vision of the South Asian Economic Union (SAEU). The SAEU has been mentioned en passant in previous summits, but this time it has received a more categorical mention in the declaration, which also spells out a roadmap to achieve the SAEU “in a phased and planned manner through a Free Trade Area, a Customs Union, a Common Market, and a Common Economic and Monetary Union”. This is a definitive step forward.

The summit declaration duly stresses on the need for imparting greater traction to SAFTA under the SAARC process by “putting into operation simplified and transparent rules of origin; implementation of trade facilitation measures; harmonisation of standards relating to Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) and sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures; harmonised, streamlined and simplified customs procedures; elimination of non-tariff and para-tariff barriers; and smooth and efficient transit and transport facilities”. These are essential for regionalism everywhere and their pursuit requires focussed and unhindered hard work in meticulous detail. There are no short cuts even if the overall political context is extremely conducive, in the case of the European Union.

Addressing Inherent Challenges

In the EU, the free trade area was established nearly four decades after initial steps in the 1950s with the Coal and Steel community. The EU benefitted from the services of the European Commission where thousands and thousands of man hours were committed to the creation of a detailed framework for regional cooperation, including along the lines spelt out above. This needed commitment of huge resources, both human and financial, and necessary institutional framework.

In the case of SAARC, such commitments in terms of resources and institutional structures are exceedingly limited. The total funds spent on SAARC over the past 29 years by all its member states are far too frugal even when compared to funds spent by international financial institutions in just one country annually. The SAARC Secretariat comprises limited staff to assist the secretary general, the strength of which was determined in 1985-87. However, in the past three decades, the agenda of activities has expanded limitlessly. Just eight counsellor level diplomatic officers and the secretary general have put in place an impressive corpus of legal instruments and mechanisms to promote multipronged cooperation. Their strength, funding as well as mandates for action needs to be augmented. The summit declaration also includes specific directions for work in this regard.

SAARC mechanisms should be reviewed every three years by a Standing Committee of foreign secretaries to evaluate performance, achievements and constraints. SAARC leaders also addressed the problem posed by a large number of regional centres created over the past decades by endorsing their selective closure and merger, and attached importance to making them efficient, effective and result-oriented with programmes and projects that produce tangible outcomes. The summit also made a commitment to enhance the institutional capacity of the SAARC Secretariat, in keeping with emerging realities.

These decisions can go a long way in improving the effectiveness of the incremental process that SAARC has come to represent. It is unfair to expect SAARC to deliver in quick time on big ticket items. Even bilateral processes in South Asia, which are far more entrenched in the government machinery of these countries, often come in for severe scrutiny for meagre results. The development process itself in this region throws challenges that can be addressed by plurality of forums. SAARC figures as just one of these forums. The latest summit should be assessed in terms of its pronouncements and direct emphasis on tangible action.

Greater Role for Observers

As regards providing SAARC Observers, especially China, with a greater role in the regional framework, the summit mandated the programming committee to engage the Observers in productive, demand-driven and objective project based cooperation in an incremental fashion in priority areas as identified by Member States. To expect observers, no matter how generous with funds, to transform this incremental process is unrealistic because precedents from other regions show no examples of external powers speeding up tepid regional cooperation. SAARC does not come in the way of bilateral assistance and cooperation in any case. For donors, too, it is easier to ensure delivery of assistance through the bilateral route.

India's Commitment

The individual statements of leaders at the plenary meeting reaffirmed commitment to the agenda and pledged contributions for the same. India, on its part, made generous and tangible offers with definite timelines for implementation. Prime Minister Modi’s statement was marked by clarity and purpose in his offers:

i. To set up a Special Purpose Facility in India to finance infrastructure projects in ‘our’ region that enhances ‘our’ connectivity and trade;

ii. To give business visa for 3-5 years for SAARC business people;

iii. To meet the shortfall in funds for establishing the SAARC Regional Supra Reference Laboratory for TB and HIV;

iv. To offer the five-in-one vaccine for children of South Asia and provide support for monitoring and surveillance of polio-free countries, and vaccines where it might reappear;

v. To extend immediate medical visa for the patient and one attendant; and

vi. To gift a satellite for the SAARC region “to benefit us all” in areas like education, telemedicine, disaster response, resource management, weather forecasting and communication. The prime minister also set December 8, 2016 for the launch of such a satellite. His offer has received spontaneous welcome from neighbouring countries that must make the best of such offers.

The SAARC summit in November does mark a forward movement of much significance in South Asian regional cooperation. One can expect the next two years to see greater action to fulfil the pledges made.

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