Columns -Thoughts from London

SAARC: The poor relation in regionalism

By Neville de Silva

It is a commonplace among commentators writing on the progress (or lack of it) of our regional organisation, SAARC, to compare it with our older cousin ASEAN and even with the European Union. Such comparisons do make SAARC seem the poor relation. That is a fact and no amount of white-washing would cover-up the salient truth that SAARC is a poor relation not simply because 40% of the world’s poor live in the countries that make up the South Asian regional grouping. It is also so because other groupings such as ASEAN and the EU have made giant strides in strengthening and smoothening their relations among the members that compose their respective organisations but also because they have reached outside their geographical regions to establish productive working relations with others beyond their frontiers.

One of the key elements that led to the formation of the European Union, starting with the more limited and narrowly focussed Common Market, was the desire to see that Europe would be free of war. Two world wars had left Europe morally and economically drained. The 20th century had seen the major powers in Western Europe fighting each other on two occasions, the second time leading to the post-war division of Europe and the start of the Cold War. It was the abhorrence of war and the overwhelming desire that Europe should not fight another war on its soil that sparked off what we see today as the European Union, an organisation that has grown to 27 members including some that once belonged to the Socialist bloc under Moscow’s tutelage. So there were moral and political compulsions behind the first stirrings of Western European unity.

Closer home there were similar imperatives that led to the formation of ASEAN. It is important to remember the historical period that gave birth to the Southeast Asian grouping that has now grown into a strong economic organisation and a politically- influential body in world affairs. ASEAN was formally established in 1967. The region was a vastly different place geo-politically and geo-strategically, from what it is today. There were underlying political compulsions that led some of the nations of Southeast Asia to weld together their then national interests, into a larger grouping to fight what they perceived as a common political enemy.

It was not that there was no cooperation even then between some of the nations that now belong to ASEAN. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand were all part of one or more groupings before the formation of ASEAN. Yet the fear of a common enemy, an assertive China deprived of UN membership, and the spread of the cancer of communism (as perceived by some of those southeast nations) drove them into each others’ arms on the principle, I suppose, that there was strength in unity.The ongoing Vietnam war and the heavy involvement of the US in it on behalf of the pro-western regimes in South Vietnam, the belief that China was fomenting unrest in some of the countries by supporting communist insurgencies was part of the prevailing scenario. Indonesia insisted that China was behind the 1965 coup supposedly led by the Communist Party’s Aidit which was brutally crushed, making General Suharto the new strongman who replaced the now weakened President Soekarno a couple of years later. Some of the southeast nations such as Thailand and the Philippines had already permitted US military bases to be established on their soil which were used by US forces fighting in Vietnam where the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were receiving military and political support from China.

Although ASEAN projected itself to the world as an economic grouping, the raison d’etre for its formation was geopolitical and to fulfil Washington’s strategic aims in the region. That is why when the then Malaysian prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman invited prime minister Dudley Senanayake during a visit to Kuala Lumpur, to bring Ceylon into the association, Senanayake was very cautious. As I have written in a previous column several months ago, I did ask prime minister Dudley Senanayake about this invitation and discussed it at some length. Principally his fear was that ASEAN was more than an economic grouping, that the nations were banding together ostensibly for economic reasons but actually it was a pro-western bulwark against China and expected communist expansionism in the region.
This is why he did not jump at the idea and accept the Tunku’s invitation. Though he was a UNP leader, Dudley Senanayake knew that Ceylon had good relations with China, first forged through the rubber-rice pact in the teeth of American opposition, and strengthened very much under prime minister Sirima Bandaranaike who had also been the emissary of the Colombo conference to mediate in the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. Moreover Ceylon was then very much a committed member of the non-aligned movement and intellectually Dudley Senanayake took NAM more seriously than JR Jayewardene did in later years as president.

While there were strong pro-western political links which saw Washington as the protector of the region from Chinese communist over-lordship, that brought the founding fathers of ASEAN together, there was little of that binding glue when SAARC was launched almost 20 years after the Southeast Asian grouping. Rather it appeared to be the reverse, fear not of forces outside the region but within it. What has held back cohesion and the progress of SAARC has been the chequered history of Indo-Pakistan relations. Some might be hesitant to admit this but in reality Indo-Pakistan relations have been a major constraint to a more progressive development of SAARC from the very beginning.

Last Sunday this column pointed out how differences emerged at the very first meeting of foreign secretaries who gathered in Colombo to initiate SAARC. These were essentially political differences arising from the emergence of India and Pakistan as independent states. These political differences that have stymied the development of the regional body have permeated even economic and trade relations with Pakistan, for instance, not granting “Most Favoured Nation” status to India and the fear of Indian goods saturating its markets as well as those of other member states.

There is of course another reason (there are others as well) why SAARC has hardly left the starting blocks while ASEAN has forged ahead. The ASEAN economies were liberalised much earlier than those in our region. In fact Sri Lanka was the first South Asian nation to liberalise its economy post-1977. While most ASEAN nations took advantage of that opening up to hasten trade not only within itself but with the world outside, south Asia was still adhering to its autarchic approach to economic policy and management, a remnant of the old socialist philosophy. While India’s presence has dominated SAARC, no single nation in ASEAN has done so. Though Indonesia in terms of geographical size, population and resources outdoes its other member states, it has not tried to assert itself as the predominant partner in the arrangement. It has been very circumspect.

If SAARC is to prove itself as a positive regional grouping then it must go beyond internal trade agreements and even where they exist there need to be even-handedness and no bureaucratic barriers.. SAARC cannot achieve its potential in a region with many resources if it remains a closed organisation not reaching out to other countries and other regional groupings, giving them an opportunity to invest money and resources as ASEAN has done by greater interaction politically and economically.
SAARC planners should also understand that a whole new set of actors, now referred to as civil society are beginning to play a larger role outside the official ambit. In an increasingly globalised world these players are beginning to call the shots. Whether governments like it or not, they are not bit players merely walking across the stage. They are increasingly becoming leading dramatis personae who cannot be ignored. SAARC governments would have to recognise, as some of the former authoritarian nations of Southeast Asia have done, that they cannot forever hog the stage without opening the windows for some much needed fresh air.

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