Badirujjaman

South Asian Regional Integration and SAARC:
Roles and Challenges for Bangladesh

Regional integration is initiated when neighboring countries identify some areas where they can cooperate with one another, and these areas refer to regional public goods such as energy, infrastructure, and the environment; regional traditional and non-traditional security threats such as territorial overtaking, the spread of violence and extremism; transnational effects of health and food; and regional socio-economic and cultural integration, etc.

The very ideas of regionalism developed in the post-WW2 world, but after the decline of the neo-liberal force of globalization to sustain equity among nations, the concept of regionalism or regional cooperation has become more obvious.

Therefore, SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) was established with the same ideas. And from its establishment to the present day, Bangladesh as a member state has been doing great by carrying out the very agendas of the platform. But some other states, i.e., India and Pakistan, haven’t had the same objectives as Bangladesh. Their political equation, rather than collective efforts, makes SAARC more vulnerable.

So In this writing, we will discuss the regional integration process in brief and SAARC as a regional institution, and try to analyze the relationship between Bangladesh and SAARC and the roles and challenges Bangladesh faces in facilitating the aforementioned South Asian regional process in detail.

Why Regional Integration is Important?

Regional co-operation has emerged from common necessities in various regional affairs, including both traditional and non-traditional security threats, socioeconomic concerns, common public goods and resource optimization, such as Joint River or maritime zone delimitation, as well as utilization, etc. But regional cooperation in practice is very difficult for some reasons, namely:

  • Political mistrust, political instability, or even national pride
  • Unequal possession of costs and benefits
  • Overlapping domestic tendencies in a vacuum regional system
  • Uneven competition of interests or a core peripheral dilemma; and many others

However, these difficulties need to be solved for the common good, and here comes the concept of integration. But this integrating process can only be facilitated through the following agencies:

  • International organizations (IOs) helped their members through consultations, technical expertise, logistics support, and most importantly, financial assistance.
  • Regional integrating agreements or regional organizations (RIAs or ROs) work on non-trade-related issues through specialized institutions, which are created by some common consented rules, where every mechanism has been structured, from mutual collaboration to dispute settlements. Unlike IOs, ROs helped to discuss a variety of issues, from politics to culture—which is essential for maintaining peace and security—and also the progress of the region.

Regional integration is essential for various reasons; it may vary from region to region, namely:

  • Non-traditional security (NTS) threats have become crucial for every region of the world to both prevent and counter. Trafficking of drugs and humans, health and food security, environmental degradation, enhancement of extreme violence, etc. are counted as NTS. This threat has transnational effects. For example, Covid-19. So in today’s globalized world, no state in a region cannot claim that it is someone else’s problem because COVID-19 showed how we can suffer from some foolish argument.
  • Regional integration provided the idea that trust or partnership is better than punishment if they can make it. Because today’s international system, both world and regional, is based on a liberal economy, mistrust or punishment can only defeat common interests.
  • Regional integration is essential for continuing supply chains.
  • Regional integration can help in emergency situations. Like in present pandemic times, regionalism plays a significant role, etc.

 

SAARC in brief:

In 1985, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) founded in Dhaka, Bangladesh. SAARC began its journey with seven South Asian countries as a regional cooperative international organization. Later, Afghanistan joined the association in 2007. Now there are eight member countries in SAARC: Bangladesh, India, Bhutan, the Maldives, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka.

SAARC provided a common platform for the member states so that they can work together in the spirit of friendship, trust, and understanding. It has the goal of promoting welfare of the people of South Asia. They can use SAARC as an efficient institution to improve their quality of life through economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in their region.

SAARC respected the principles of sovereignty, political independence, noninterference, territorial integrity in the internal affairs of the Member states, and mutual benefits. Summits of SAARC are held annually. The host country of the Summit holds the Chair of the Association. There are seven Directors on deputation from Member States who assist the Secretary General.

8 December is observed as SAARC Charter Day by the SAARC Secretariat and Member States. SAARC has nine Observer countries: Australia, China, Iran, Japan, the European Union, Mauritius, Myanmar, the Republic of Korea, and the USA. 


SAARC as a Regional International Organization:  

If we try to define “SAARC” as a regional institution, at first we should identify what a  regional institution is and what its basic characteristics are. 

We can describe ‘regional organization or Institution’ as a geopolitical entity that is  voluntarily established by some states situated in the same territory or region. States  establish it to connect with increasing interdependency and cooperation among them. 

By analyzing other regional institutions, like the EU, ASEAN, BIMSTEC, NATO, APEC, and  OIC, some basic characteristics of a regional institution appear. 

Like as; 

  1. Definite purpose; 
  2. Rules and regulations; 
  3. Geopolitical settings; 
  4. Common patterns of development and history; and 
  5. Future aims. 

It can be a way to define SAARC as a regional institution by combining the above mentioned basic characteristics of a regional institution with comparative discussion. 

First, we can define the definite purposes of SAARC as a regional institution. SAARC also  has some specific aims and purposes of its own. By its Charter, SAARC contained eight 

cooperative sectors; it now contains more than eight. Basically, on the basis of those  definite purposes, SAARC was established to create cooperative relations among member  states. 

Second, the rules and regulations of a regional institution or organization provide legality  to maintain the behaviors of member states. 

Similarly, Article 02 of the SAARC Charter is decorated by the rules and regulations of  SAARC. This article acts as a law for SAARC to monitor the behaviors of its members. 

Third, geopolitical settings are another prominent characteristic of regional institutions.  Normally, a large number of regional organizations are established by neighboring  countries. Beyond this phenomenon, the basic reason would be easy communication and  similarity of culture, norms, and values. 

At this point, we can define SAARC as a regional organization. Since SAARC is established  by only South Asian Countries, it upholds geopolitical settings as a characteristic. 

Fourth, a common pattern of development and history is another characteristic of  regional institutions. It demonstrates that almost all regional institutions are established  in terms of member states common structure, norms, values, and histories. 

All member states of SAARC run on common patterns, like democratic political systems,  free market economies, women’s empowerment, seeking development, and so on. Again,  they also uphold the same culture, norms, and values, more or less. And more  importantly, all the states of SAARC were under British colonial rule for many years.  That’s how their social, economic, and political systems are the same. 

Fifth, every international and regional organization contains some plans or aims for the  future. Also, SAARC’s future aim is to be a more successful regional organization, like  ASEAN

As a regional institution, SAARC was established by South Asian Countries, which were  influenced by removing existing suspicion and misunderstanding and building up mutual  trust among them. 

In the period 1950–1990, the world’s economic growth was 6%; on the contrary, South  Asia’s economic growth was 4%. SAARC approved two treaties, the South Asian  Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) and the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA),  to enhance economic activities among the states of the South Asian region. 

Basically, to expand trade, enhance economic cooperation, and build up mutual trust and  understanding in the South Asian region, states in this region took the initiative to  establish SAARC as a regional organization. 

  

EVOLUTION OF SAARC:  

The late Bangladeshi President Ziaur Rahman was the first pioneer in establishing a  framework for regional integrity. It was formed under UN Charter Article 52, which  ensures regional agencies promote purpose and principle according to the UN Charter. As  a regional organization, SAARC was established on December 8, 1985. Evolution has passed  through four phases: 

(1) Conception (1977–1988) 

(2) The meeting of foreign secretaries (1981–1983) 

(3) The meeting of foreign ministers (1983–1985) 

(4) The Summit’s (1985–present) 


CONCEPTION of SAARC :  

 In 1967, when Southeast Asian countries formed their regional  institution called ASEAN, he pondered, Why are we South Asians not able to set up like  that? So, in late 1977, Ziaur Rahman planned to set up a regional forum to reduce the  tense atmosphere in the region. 

In December 1977, President Ziaur Rahman was talking about it with Indian Prime  Minister Morarji Desai at the same time as King Birendra of Nepal. In 1980, he sent his  special messenger with a proposal for regional cooperation to all the countries. Nepal,  Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives supported the idea. 


MEETING OF FOREIGN SECRETARIES:  

In April 1981, it was a substantial step in the formation of a regional forum held by the  foreign secretaries of seven States in Colombia. In 1983, the first official meeting was held  among the foreign ministers of the states in New Delhi. In 1984, all members agreed on a  draft chapter. 


FOREIGN MINISTER:  

In December 1985, the first summit was held in Dhaka among the heads of state of all  seven countries. When the SAARC Charter was approved, it was decided that the cabinet  of the SAARC would be founded in Kathmandu (Nepal), and the Secretary-General would  circle among member States.  

The chairperson will be determined by the country where the summit will be held. The  Charter promised that all decisions would be taken based on consensus and that  interrupting issues would be excluded from the conversations at the summit. 


SAARC’S SUMMIT:  

The first summit was held in Bangladesh, in Dhaka, in 1985. The member states agreed to  examine the problems of terrorism and drug trafficking. The 4th summit, which was held  in 1989, was declared the ‘ SAARC year against drug abuse’ to pay attention to drug related problems.  

The 6th Summit, which was held in 1991, established cooperative relations in the field of  science and technology. In 1993, the seventh summit was held for the second time in 

Dhaka. The member states emphasize ensuring peace, progress, and stability in a large  context. 

The 14th Summit took place in New Delhi in 2007. India welcomes the Islamic Republic of  Afghanistan as a new member. China, Japan, the EU, South Korea, and Iran have all  become observers. The 15th summit took place in Sri Lanka in 2008 to promote  partnership for our people, and under the theme of ‘climate change, it was held in  Bhutan in 2010.  

The 18th summit took place in Kathmandu in 2014. All the members of the government  attended that summit to examine a deeper integration for peace and prosperity. It is  important for the 1.3 billion people in that region. 

The 19th summit took place in  Pakistan in 2016. Following the URI terror attack, India didn’t participate. Later,  Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives resigned from the summit in an  uncertain postponement. 


Contribution of Bangladesh in establishment SAARC  

To explain Bangladesh’s contribution to establishing SAARC (South Asian Association for  Regional Cooperation), we have to flash back to the beginning of its formation. It is the  only organization that was the output of the efforts of Bangladeshi President Ziaur  Rahman then.  

SAARC was formally founded in 1985 on December 8th, and the founding father of this  was Ziaur Rahman. But this was not an easy way to begin a common platform that  would help the South Asian countries build friendship and mutual cooperation. 

From 1977–80, Ziaur Rahman visited India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka and  met with the state leaders of these countries. He presented the actual situation in the  Asian region and requested that you think about his proposal. He wanted to create a  platform like ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations).  

At first, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka supported the case for enhancing regional security.  On the contrary, India and Pakistan doubted this. This time, many analytical writings,  journals, and essays started to be published. And the political or regional situation was 

not stable in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So a strong cooperative organization was in  demand. Ziaur Rahman sent invitations to the state leaders of the South Asian countries. 

Morarji Desai, the prime minister of India, talked to him over the same issue when Zia-Ur  Rahman took a tour to India in 1977. Then he went to Kathmandu, Nepal, and King  Virendra agreed with Zia to share river water. There were four meetings from 1980–83 on  this issue, and finally the principles were set. 

Though President Zia died on May 30, 1980, the journey of SAARC did not stop at all.  Moreover, it was promoted by later President Hussain Muhammad Ershad. He completed  the rest of the responsibility. 

The dream of a regional platform finally came into force on December 8, 1985. The  headquarters were set up in Dhaka. The last member of SAARC was Afghanistan, which  joined the bloc in 2007. 

There were six observers: China, Japan, the European Union, the Republic of Korea, and  the United States. 


Bangladesh and SAARC  

South Asian countries are the global economic and trade kernel of importance, and their  advantageous production and supply chains have increasingly gained appreciation. At first,  as a South Asian country, Bangladesh took the initiative to form a regional organization  like SAARC for the purpose of economic, social, and cultural improvement. 

South Asian  countries wanted to break free from the dependency of western countries because what  they provide is based on so many conditions that are not beneficial to South Asian  countries in a wide range of ways. 


Priorities in SAARC:  

Bangladesh attempted to  

Establish SAARC for the welfare and growth of South Asia.

Create an opportunity that can increase ability and the possibility of achievement. Increase collective self-reliance and self-efficiency. 

Respect neighboring states and trust each other. 

Identify the problems between states and pop out solutions. 

Economic, social, cultural, science, and technological collaboration 

Progress in cooperation between developing states 

Promote regional cooperation internationally. 

Assisting International and regional organizations with similar purposes Implementation of SAFTA for non-tariff or trade 

shaping agricultural and food security and putting an effect on the pacts Give importance to preventing terrorism and extremism in regional areas. Improving the education sector and providing equally 

Initiate the scientific programs with the children for gathering knowledge. Rise of economic connectivity among each other. 

Bangladesh proclaimed the regional association of human resource management,  technology and the ICT sector, reduction of poverty, prevention of climate change, ocean  and blue economy, fuel and electricity, and a whole regional cooperation. 

Other purposes  of this regional organization are to ensure peace and stability in South Asia and enrich  trade, investment, fuel, security, infrastructure, cohesion, and cultural harmony in South  Asia.


Challenges  

SAARC is considered a failed regional organization, as the political and economic regional  cooperation of the states was not enough until today. States faced a lack of association  because of the conservative mindset of the leaders, which was one of the challenges of  this organization.  

Bilateral relations crises were not allowed to be mentioned there, which was the condition  of the pact. Inconsistency of opinion, distrust, unreliability, and antagonism between the  member states, India and Pakistan, were some of the challenges on the path to success.  

There was more non-cooperation than collaboration between the member states. India is  the largest member country of the organization, and it tried to influence other small  member states for self-preferences. At the 18th summit of SAARC, Bangladesh and other  member states signed a Framework Agreement for Energy and Electricity Cooperation.  

In this agreement, the uses of electricity, the rise of power grid security, and the demand  for electricity were the concerns. They wanted to electrify the market through mutual  cooperation. Bangladesh tried to tackle its own scarcity of electricity and signed an  agreement to import electricity from other regional member states.  

But the concretion of the South Asian states is not an easy process. Another big challenge  is that except for Bangladesh, other states political mentalities and lack of compromising  minds create doubt between member states. Internal communication between Bangladesh  and other member states, except India, is not facile, so their intervening space is  enormous. 


SAARC and COVID-19 emergency fund  

India initiated a COVID-19 emergency fund to respond to the global coronavirus pandemic  and alleviate the risks in the South Asian region on March 15, 2020. Bangladesh and other  member states supported the proposal of a Corona virus emergency fund and donated a  respectable amount of money for the emergency funding. 

On March 22, Bangladesh contributed $1.5 million to the emergency pandemic fund. Other  member states, including India, the Maldives, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and  Afghanistan, also contributed money to the emergency fund for the welfare of the South  Asian countries. 


The Future of SAARC and Bangladesh  

As we know, the South Asian region has been suffering because of bilateral tension and  distrust as well as differences between member countries. This region has a lot of cultural  diversity and a long history of conflict, especially between India and Pakistan.  

There are variations in political and religious beliefs, and this region has experienced all  types of governing systems, such as dictatorship, monarchy, and democracy. On the other  hand, India covers almost 60% of SAARC’s geographical area, natural reserves, foreign  exchange, GDP, and military power, which creates a b lot of tension for its n neighboring  country in terms of regional hegemony.  

Part from the SAARC summit that was supposed to be held in Pakistan in 2016, it did not  happen due to the Indian government’s disagreement. The problem is that India has  united SAARC and Pakistan. 

Basically, SAARC is on the verge of death in the crossfire of  the India-Pakistan bilateral dispute. For almost five years, the top leadership of this  alliance has not met together.  

But the need for South Asian political leaders to sit together is greater now than at any  time in history. All these issues are leading to uncertainty about the future of SAARC as  well as Bangladesh’s prospects with SAARC. 

But if the countries can build mutual trust  among themselves, there is still hope, and they have a lot of opportunities to strengthen  SAARC. They can work jointly on agricultural research because food security is a common  problem in this region.  

High-level cooperation is required for infrastructure development, technical assistance,  energy and renewable energy cooperation, research, higher education, etc. Bangladesh can 

help the respective countries implement microfinance models, and the SAARC countries  need to be competitive in the small and medium enterprise sector to make the export  structure conducive to value-added products and services.  

As we know, regional connectivity is important for regional development, such as in the  EU. SAARC needs to focus on the construction of the proposed BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan,  India, Nepal) corridor as well as the development and construction of ports. They need to  focus on free trade agreements. 

China is trying to influence this region because of its  geographical importance, so jointly they can prevent dominance.  

Bangladesh and other countries should benefit from SAARC if the member states are  cooperative, and SAARC will be a strong regional organization after the EU and ASEAN.  Therefore, regional development and peace require a cooperative spirit and trust between  SAARC members; otherwise, the future prospects of SAARC will be uncertain. 


Conclusion:  

Regional integration is very important in the present world, where any threats, traditional  or non-traditional, are transnational in nature. Therefore, many cooperative regional  agencies emerged, such as the EU, CIS, AU, ASEAN, etc.  

In south Asia, SAARC plays and can play a greater role in preventing, containing, and  countering such threats and utilizing economic opportunities for further thriving. Since  the beginning, Bangladesh has been upholding the same objectives: common satisfaction  through mutual collaboration and common integration.  

But yet SAARC shows much hope among the country because of personal perception,  political mistrust, and even political practices by the regional hegemon, India. And the  COVID-19 pandemic compelled them to understand that such threats can only be  mitigated through mutual collaboration and collective actions.  

Bangladesh’s strong commitment to maintaining a peaceful South Asia and securitizing its  dwellers can only be possible if SAARC and its members go in according to its rules and  directions and if they develop this platform to sort out their existing problems. And  Bangladesh is trying for it.


References: 

  1. “About SAARC”. SAARC Secretariat. Archived from the original on 11 November  2013. Retrieved 11 November 2013. 
  2. “A Brief on SAARC.” South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Archived 2  December 2008 at the Wayback Machine No date. See for a complete historical account of  SAARC e.g. Michael, Arndt (2013). India’s Foreign Policy and Regional Multilateralism  (Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 57–112. 
  3. “South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) | Treaties & Regimes |  NTI”. www.nti.org. Retrieved 13 September2020. 
  4. Center, Asia Regional Integration. “South Asian Free Trade Area Free Trade  Agreement”. aric.adb.org. Retrieved 2 March 2018 
  5. Bangladesh foreign policy by Harun Ur Rashid 
  6. SAARC: origin, Growth, potential & achievement by Mohammad Jamshed Iqbal
  7. SAARC: Its Evolution, Objections constraints & prospects ( chapter 3)

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