Regional integration has been identified as one of the major strategies often used to solve common political, economic, scientific, and social issues faced by countries in a particular geographic region. Regional integration is an arrangement for enhancing cooperation through regional rules and institutions entered into by states of the same region. Regional integration could have varied objectives such as political or economic goals or in some cases, trade initiatives aimed at broader security and commercial purposes. Looking at today’s international arena, regional integration is no longer a common phenomenon. Since the end of the Second World War, regional integration was used as one of the major foreign policy tools, in the context of fulfilling both their national and regional interests. Today, regional set ups like the European Union (EU), Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have proved how effective regional integration can be both in achieving national interests of individual countries and promoting peace and harmony within the region.
As far as regional integration in South Asia is concerned, it was in 1980’s that Bangladesh first proposed the institutionalization of regional cooperation in South Asia. After several rounds of debates and discussions, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was finally established in 1985 comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Today, with Afghanistan joining the Association in 2007, SAARC membership has increased up to eight. Since the establishment of SAARC in 1985, its membership took a number of initiatives to encourage regional cooperation especially through inter-regional trade. However, the question is raised whether South Asia as a region has been able to promote these initiatives to enhance regional cooperation. During his speech at the 18th SAARC Summit in Nepal Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi states “Nowhere in the world are collective efforts more urgent than in South Asia; and, nowhere else is it so modest.” South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA) and South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) came into force with the prime objective of encouraging inter regional trade. However, despite these initiatives to promote inter regional trade, compared with other regions; inter regional trade in South Asia remains considerably low. For instance, intra regional trade as a share of total East Asia and Pacific’s total trade was 50% in 2008. The corresponding figure for Europe was 59% and the North America was 27%. As far as South Asia is concerned, intra-regional trade remains as low as 5%. Furthermore, ever since these countries got independence from imperialism, between the countries in the regions, we continuously witnessed hostile and aggressive attitudes towards each other despite some moments of peace. It may be Indo-Pakistan, Pak-Afghan or Indo-Sri Lanka, an underlying inherent hostile attitude towards each other certainly bears an absolute negative impact on deciding the future direction of regional integration in South Asia. So, where does South Asia stand? Is regional integration a possibility in South Asia? And if possible, how can it be effectively promoted in South Asia? Can there be an out-of-box thinking on this? One wonders if statist or realist understanding of things prevail given that South Asians are lagging behind in development and prosperity compared to other regions?
by Hashan Wijesinghe (Intern, RCSS)