The South Asia Channel

Strengthening ties in South Asia

While regionalism in Europe is under stress due to a monetary crisis, South Asian efforts at regional cooperation are gaining some tentative strength. The seventeenth summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), held in Addu Atoll in the Maldives, concluded last Friday with a greater sense of regional purpose and international approval. The United States sent Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake, and, for the first time, China sent a team of observers to the event.

SAARC was established as a permanent organization in 1985, with a secretariat hosted in Kathmandu, Nepal created in 1987, in partial competition with other regional blocks such as The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. Its original seven members: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, also agreed to add Afghanistan as an eighth member in 2007. The addition of Afghanistan was particularly significant because SAARC could thereby act as a forum for India and Pakistan to negotiate their strategic influence over Afghanistan's development path. In Pakistan, there has been recurring suspicion about ulterior motives for the high level of development aid that India has given to Afghanistan. This is believed to be a major cause for the Pakistani security establishment's interference in Afghanistan's political trajectory. Allowing for a transparent exchange on regional development investment in Afghanistan could be an effective means of assuaging some of this mistrust. A glimmer of this prospect was realized at last week's meeting, where Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with both the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers for talks on regional development and security.

The persistent acrimony and nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan has often hampered substantive progress at regional cooperation. Yet SAARC is evolving into a forum that links civil society and governments in the region through common denominators such as education, the environment and human rights. At this year's summit, "People's SAARC," a parallel initiative to the official SAARC, which was established originally in 1996 as a stakeholder feedback mechanism to regional governments, emerged with a clear "memorandum" that made detailed but practical "demands" on the rights of fishermen in regional waters, migratory populations and communities impacted by climatic changes and disasters.

SAARC's metaphorical holy grail remains a South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), and here, too, some progress is being made. Just before the SAARC meeting this year, the Pakistani cabinet gave tentative approval for "Most Favored Nation" status to be bestowed upon India in reciprocity for India's granting the same a decade and a half earlier. A free trade agreement is likely to favor India as the major economic power in the region, but other SAARC nations are feeling more confident since they were able to address recent food shortages in India for commodities like onions. Pakistan is now the world's second largest clothing exporter (after China), as noted by HSBC in its recent advertising campaign. Thus clothing demand for India's rising middle class is also buoying trade potential strength against protectionist forces.

Among the lesser-known accomplishments of SAARC is the establishment of the South Asian University in New Delhi, which supports students from all member countries to study together under one institutional umbrella. The university held its first classes in 2010, just five years after idea was introduced at the SAARC summit in Dhaka in 2005, initially offering Master's degree programs in Computer Applications and Development Economics. At this year's summit, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that India will increase the number of SAARC Silver Jubilee Scholarships at the University from 50 to 100 (75 of these 100 scholarships will be at the Masters level and 25 at the doctoral level).

In his formal remarks, the Indian prime minister also stated unequivocally "that India has a special responsibility that flows from the geography of our region and the state of our economy and market."  Environmental cooperation was highlighted specifically in the context of the India Endowment for Climate Change, which will provide ten scholarships per year to citizens of SAARC member states for post-graduate and doctoral studies in forestry courses at the Indian Forestry Research Institute in Dehradun, India.

Interestingly enough, cooperation on environmental matters in the region predates the establishment of SAARC in 1985. The unique characteristics of the Himalayan region, as the world's highest mountain range with the steepest elevation gradient, prompted the creation of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, which has its roots in the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere program, was launched in 1983. The same year, the South Asia Co-operative Environment Program (SACEP) was established as an inter-governmental organization headquartered in Colombo, Sri Lanka.  Such initiatives need further strengthening with SAARC support, particularly in the wake of massive floods that have ravaged the region in the past two years. Indeed, the Indus Waters Treaty and other riparian agreements in South Asia deserve to be revisited with a regional view, and SAARC may provide a technical platform for such interactions, given its growing ecological mandate. Such technical cooperation may also prevent escalation of disputes over increasingly scarce resources such as water and energy across the region.

Despite many hopeful signs, the greatest threat to regional cooperation -- religious fanaticism -- was present at the SAARC summit as well. Maldives' Islamist Adhaalath Party was accused of stirring unrest around the summit. In one puzzling incident, a monument given by Pakistan to the Maldives that contained historical images was vandalized by extremists on the archipelago for being "idolatrous."  Such acts are indeed a reminder that SAARC still has many challenges ahead to fostering regional cooperation, and that security and cooperation must complement each other through multiple pathways of hard and soft politics.

Saleem H. Ali is professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the director of the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security at the James Jeffords Center for Policy Research. He can be followed @saleem_ali

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