By Sajjad Shaukat

SAARC Preparatory meeting

The 16th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) will take place in Thimpu, Bhutan on April 28-29, this year. The SAARC was established when its Charter was adopted on December 8, 1985 and now has Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as member nations.

It is also being speculated that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh may take this opportunity to meet on the side to talk each other. The Indo-Pak composite talks were stalled following the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Even though the foreign secretaries of both the countries met on February 25, 2009 in New Delhi, the deliberations failed to yield any substantial result with India pressing hard on its undue demand for Islamabad to do more against terror networks.

The key to political stability in South Asia is to deal with the terrorism and internal conflicts. Regional cross-border cooperation is an essential part of any counterinsurgency strategy. Considerable potential exists for regional cooperation in reducing conflict, but this has been an underutilized strategy in combating terrorism in South Asia.

While all countries want to take this opportunity to iron out their regional differences, regional politics will overshadow common concerns like poverty alleviation, promoting economic cooperation and climate change.

Nihal Rodrigo, former Secretary General of SAARC, once said that in 1999-soon after the Indo-Pak nuclear explosions when the SAARC process came to a standstill-there took place around 360 meetings of various SAARC and South Asian related associations and forums. This clearly shows the desire among professionals to interact with one another and to be in close touch across borders.

But the achievements on other areas such as economic integration, is far from satisfactory. South Asia remains the least integrated region in the world despite South Asia Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) and South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA).

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On the whole, SAARC has a long way to go for people of the region to appreciate the benefits of regional integration like

Paro Airport, Bhuttan

visa free travel as in the EU. However, SAARC could not become a solid organization.

The neighbours always feared India’s domination as it accounted for 80 percent of land area, population and GDP of the region. The regional politics overwhelms to dilute economic issues in the SAARC agenda. The key political impediment is the Indo-Pakistan conflict. Since they are the largest members of SAARC, their problems have ramifications on the SAARC work program.

Owing to the largest size of its economy, India is trying to dominate and damage the indigenous industries of the other SAARC countries, the progress of various programs like SAFTA gets slowed down. It is because of the Indian secret strategic designs that the SAARC countries prefer to do business in EU or USA instead of India.

It is misfortune of South Asia that India has been endangering the regional peace by dreaming to become a superpower in wake of modern world trends like renunciation of war, peaceful settlement of disputes and economic integration. Over the years, India has not only been developing its conventional and nuclear arsenals, but is also obtaining latest weapons from the US, Russia and Israel. As to how India has blocked the progress of the SAARC in one or the other way could be judged from the fact that in May 1998, it detonated five nuclear explosions and compelled Pakistan to follow the suit. Thus New Delhi entangled Pakistan in a deadly arms race, which dependents upon the minimum nuclear deterrence.

As regards Indian belligerent approach, it has always tried to intimidate other neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan whom the former considers a continuous obstacle in the way of its designs. Under the pretext of Talibinisation, Indian secret agency, RAW has well-established its tentacles in Afghanistan, and has been running secret operations against Pakistan from its consulates located near the Pak-Afghan border.

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It is due to Indian intransigence and ambition of political and economic hegemony that the overload of ‘soft issues’ in the agenda dominates the SAARC deliberations. Consequently, core issues like Kashmir and water including other ones such as trade and investment integration, get undermined during the deliberations.

Although the environment and the economy will feature prominently as it is the theme of the Summit—in addition, they may sign the agreement on South Asia Trade in Services (SATIS), yet the thorny dispute of Kashmir must not only be included in the agenda of this summit but also in every forthcoming summit.

India which considers the occupied Kashmir as integral part of the Indian union is using delaying tactics in order to avoid the solution of this old issue. Notably, India wants to keep her control on Kashmir which is located in the Indus River basin area which contributes to the flow of all the major rivers, entering Pakistan. By constructing dams in order to stop the flow of water, New Delhi is determined to bring about political, economic and social problems of grave nature in Pakistan. In this connection, directly or indirectly, New Delhi blocks the progress of the SAARC.

The postponement of the SAARC Summit in 1999 followed renewed tension between India and Pakistan. Similarly, both countries’ preferential imports from each other declined significantly from 1996 to 1998 following the nuclear tests in 1998 and the Kargil conflict in 1999.

Indian ambition to become a superpower of the region by bringing the other regional countries under its control and by behaving like an imperialist power has hampered even the development of SAAR towards economic integration like the EU.


It is due to Indian ‘hegemonistic’ designs that the slow progress of the SAPTA has seen a shift in focus towards bilateral trading agreements instead of multilateral ones between SAARC member countries.

Nevertheless, for economic and political reasons, SAARC has made relatively slow progress on expanding intraregional trade. In this context, political will and a change of mindset is crucial to resolve economic obstacles like the Kashmir dispute, if the SAARC region does not wish to fall further behind economically.

This is because of Indian obduracy in connection with Kashmir and its desire to become a superpower that it would be difficult for Islamabad and New Delhi to have even a separate bilateral Free Trade Arrangements (FTA)—particularly because of political tension initiated by India in the aftermath of Mumbai carnage last year, which provided India a pretext to further deteriorate its ties with Pakistan. In this regard, New Delhi left no stone unturned to isolate Islamabad diplomatically through a series of false allegations, while non-state actors were responsible for that tragedy, and there was no official involvement of Pakistan.

If India abandons its intransigence to dominate the other neighbouring countries and pays attention to the settlement of Kahsmir dispute, a regional trade arrangement such as the SAFTA administered under the SAARC would enable the member countries to obtain production inputs from each other at lower costs. The savings on logistics due to shorter distances and storage times would result in huge savings for South Asian manufacturers and consumers. For example, for Pakistan steel producers it would be more economical to import iron ore from India instead of Australia, Brazil or Canada. India on the other hand could procure scrap iron from Pakistan instead of Korea at higher costs.

Sajjad Shaukat is a regular writer for Opinion Maker. He writes on international affairs and is author of the book: US vs Islamic Militants, Invisible Balance of Power: Dangerous Shift in International Relations.