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Towards Forward Move?:CHANGING ATMOSPHERICS IN SAARC, by Dr. Chintamani Mahapatra,5 April 2007 Print E-mail

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New Delhi , 5 April 2007 

Towards Forward Move?


By Dr. Chintamani Mahapatra

School of International Studies, JNU

The fourteenth SAARC summit in New Delhi this week took place in the midst of serious ongoing crisis in the region as well as in the extended neighbourhood of South Asia. Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been witnessing the menacing growth of terrorist activities. Bangladesh, Maldives and Nepal are not very stable politically. Afghanistan has been experiencing a painful resurgence of the Taliban.

In the extended neighbourhood, Iran faces the prospect of increased sanctions in view of its nuclear policy. Iraq is in deep crisis with rising tide of violence and murders. Myanmar continues to be under the military rule and Thailand has joined the group of Asian countries with military dominance, despite the expanding wave of democracy in the world in the post-Cold War era.

The good news is, however, intensification of Indo-Pakistan peace process, which began in 2003, moved through several ups and downs and now appears to be steadier than ever. Afghanistan has entered the regional grouping as a full member raising the number of SAARC countries to eight. Iran showed interest in becoming an observer of SAARC and the member-countries have unanimous views on according this status to Iran. The United States, Japan, South Korea and China attended the New Delhi SAARC summit for the first time as Observers.

The declaration at the end of the summit is bound to have a lasting impact on economic cooperation and better understanding among the member-countries. The members have agreed to set up a SAARC Food Bank and resolved to take steps to enhance trade and other forms of economic development. These include services in the ambit of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), expenditure on investment promotion and protection agreement and working together towards energy security.  Also, an agreement to establish a South Asian University has been signed and the South Asian Development Fund made operationalised with an initial corpus of $300 million.

All these have created a novel atmosphere in the region raising the importance of SAARC into new heights. For long SAARC was either ignored, or bypassed or taken lightly by the international community. But today, the membership of this body has expanded and the new Observers are none other than the global superpower, the United States, the Asian superpower, China and the mighty economic Asian powerhouses, such as Japan and South Korea. The resource rich Iran too has sought an Observer status.

Two factors are largely responsible for these positive developments in SAARC. The first factor is unprecedented growth in the Indian economy. Ever since the current Indian Prime Minister launched a mini-economic revolution in 1991 in his capacity as the Finance Minister, there is no going back on the country’s economic growth. India could very well have sustained the international pressures in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests and the Indian economy grew despite global recession, Asian financial melt down and sanctions imposed by the United States, Japan, Australia and many other countries.

When the UPA came to power, there were apprehensions around the globe that the Indian economic reform would no longer sustain itself, since there is a Government in New Delhi that could nor function without taking dictates from the Left leaning political parties of India. Such apprehensions were truly misplaced. The UPA Government has carried forward the Indian economic reforms and helped the economy grow to unprecedented levels.

The Indian success undoubtedly has had a positive impact in the SAARC region as well. As the traders and investors from the developed world made an economic pilgrimage to India and India’s economic profile enhanced, other SAARC members also began to push their respective reform agendas. The geographical proximity that had generated a fear among the neighbours about Indian intensions gave way to positive images about a growing India. If India could do business with China, an erstwhile enemy, why not with the immediate neighbours?

Like the industrially advanced nations of the world, even India’s smaller neighbours appear to have been developing a stake in the growing markets of India. In fact, the Indian Prime Minister’s bold decision to allow some SAARC nations duty free access to Indian market is a welcome step and a constructive policy, which certainly will enhance India’s image in the SAARC and assist economic growth in the larger region. In his very opening statement, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that “India is ready to accept asymmetrical  responsibilities, opening its markets to its South Asian neighbours without insisting on reciprocity.” This is a policy that is quite different from free trade agreements. It will benefit the neighbours economically and will enable India to erect a secured and peaceful neighbourhood.

The second most important factor that has generated positive energy in the SAARC is Indo-Pakistan peace process. Many times in the past, New Delhi and Islamabad began a peace process and observed the death of the process in the hands of minor incidents or misperceptions. But the current peace process is not only the longest, but also has weathered several challenges that could have easily derailed it. Once there is a halt to the process, it normally takes very long time and additional efforts to restart it. Even if it is restarted, the fear of possible derailment continues to hunt.

The situation has drastically changed in the relations between the two South Asian superpowers. The nuclear weapons have put in place a structure of deterrence. Impossibility of total war makes it imperative for both India and Pakistan that only détente could protect their respective national interests. It could have been a cold peace as well. But the peace process has prevented that. The confidence-building measures have created a complex inter-dependence, which is at the nascent stage right now but would begin to give dividends, if the current peace could be prolonged a little more.

The beginning of a complex inter-dependence is reflected in the statement made by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. He expressed his happiness that disputes have been acknowledged by the parties and have been discussed by officials and that the “trust deficit” between the two countries has been reduced. Positively put, this remark suggests that there is more mutual confidence between Indians and Pakistanis than ever before in the history of bilateral relations.

However, only a beginning has been made to take off the SAARC to higher plains of cooperative structure. This modest beginning need to be celebrated, but a cautious optimism should be adopted to face the continuing and future challenges. South Asians need to be made aware of the fact that their future lies in cooperation and that conflict could only keep the region in a primitive stage in this age of rapid globalization and technological advancements.---INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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