What’s wrong with SAARC : a neo-realist explanation of India’s puzzling role

Why is regionalism so important?

The world order has ushered into a new era in the 21st century, changing the rules of the game altogether. While previously a nation could have survived in isolation (like the US did in 1920s), it is an impractical vision to have today. Even the traditional ways of war have become obsolete with the entry of nuclear ploriferation into the scenario. To top it up, globalisation has enabled people-to-people connectivity, something which wasn’t a norm before. A single violation of human rights is echoed to lands far and distant. In this given context, regional cooperation has become extremely important, if not necessary. Nations all around the world have to seize the opportunity, by participating actively in international cooperation and pursuing overall social and political development, and most importantly, make achievements that transcend the petty politics of identity and violence. However, serious obstacles lie in the way. To achieve peace and find common development interests in the region, there is a long and arduous journey ahead of us. And so, we feel the need to step up regional cooperation.

To understand the complexities present in the South Asian region, one needs to assess the prospects for regional integration by comparing South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) with Association for South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN).


Why is SAARC not as successful as ASEAN?

The similarities

Both the regions, before their respective associations came into existence, were colonies, embroiled in serious border and maritime disputes, and had deep, ethnic and social cleavages present in their societies. The process of social and political unification has gone much further in South-east Asia than in South Asia.

So, what did ASEAN do differently, that it has become a highly effective regional cooperation body? Having a look at both the organisations, and comparing their achievements and successes, along with the different factors that have given way to, and determined the process of regional integration, is a good way to start digging for the solution.

The differences

Indian subcontinent region is second in terms of underdevelopment after the Sub-Saharan region. This region has very poor economic, social and health indicators despite of having all the resources that are needed for development. The main reason behind this is regional non-cooperation and regional mutual mistrust, of which SAARC has become the quintessence.

On the other hand, before the founding of ASEAN in 1967, south-east Asian region was fractured in many ways. There were massive confrontations between the member states regarding territorial disputes, plus the entire south-east Asian region was struggling for survival in the cold war ‘jungle’. Despite all that, ASEAN managed to exhibit regional unity which comprises of a ‘singular’ ASEAN identity, while SAARC has failed to do so entirely.

Neo-realism and how it fits the SAARC scenario

India’s role in SAARC needs to be theoretically analysed on the lines of neo-realism, which is one of the most popular theoretical tools in the discipline of international relations. This has to be done in order to try and find out the root problems of the apparent inefficiency of the organisation. To neo-realists like Kenneth Waltz, international politics is a conflicting domain, in which, all the states are devoted to pursue their own national interests over the others’. The theory argues, that such anarchic nature of international relations is spontaneous, since there is no supranational authority to regulate the behavior of all the actors involved. Therefore, the strong states tend to pursue the relative gains from their weaker counterparts, as is the case with SAARC, and also the reason for it’s failure.

India, the key regional power/player in South Asia, bears the larger responsibility towards SAARC. The country occupies an advanced position than the other member states, in the South Asian subcontinent (also known as the ‘Indian Subcontinent’) in terms of it’s strategic position, massive demography, political geography, superior military and reserves of natural resources. India’s relative gains to her smaller South-Asian members have fostered an environment of mutual suspicion and insecurity. ASEAN, on the other hand, seems to have evaded the ‘realist’ concept of nature, hence giving itself the status of a multilateral sovereign institution.

Since the birth of SAARC, the conditon of South-Asia has not seen a complete success, be it political, social or economic, except some relative gains made by the elites. This needs to be fixed as SAARC has the potential of making South Asia a harmonious region, by getting all the member states to work in unison.

SAARC was established with the aim of bringing about significant contributions for ensuring a comprehensive regional cooperative mechanism, to guarantee sustainable development in almost all the sectors. However, the constant reality of power asymmetry in the favor of India, among the member states has jeopardized regional unity and peace.

The way forward

The way forward would be to, first, analyse the impediments to SAARC’s success by comparing them with the ‘ASEAN story’ and second, to problematise India’s role in SAARC by relating it to the neo-realist conception of ‘balance of power’ and ‘anarchy’.

SAARC could be a success, only if the organisation starts acting as a single entity, and gathers the political will to revisit the roles, that the member countries need to play in order to turn this ‘regional nightmare’ into a well integrated economic and political entity.


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