The ongoing COVID crisis has exacerbated the disparity between states whilst also creating a new opportunity for regional cooperation. In South Asia, a region characterized by political disharmony and strategic schism, regionalism, though entrenched, hasn’t been able to prosper as possibilities of further integration and cooperation look uncertain.
Regional cooperation and interaction have become an important feature of the international order. The increasingly globalised and liberalised world that calls for interaction between all states has witnessed a regional reaction with states striving to keep their regional linkages intact. In South Asia, this need for interconnectedness has long been recognised and multiple attempts to create a spirit of pan-Asian cooperation were championed in various conferences like the Asian Relations Conference and Bandung Conference. However, these attempts at cooperation and integration failed as newly independent countries began to prioritise national security and development over regional cooperation. Subsequently, this led to more sub-regional cooperation as this offered a more viable and manageable option for the newly independent states.
The formation of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985, was a regionalist project aimed at promoting cohesion in the South Asian region. With, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Maldives as founding members, and Afghanistan joining in 2007, SAARC was the first of its kind in the region. It was established with the aim of promoting social cohesion, economic and cultural cooperation, as well as encouraging self-reliance, mutual assurance and collaboration within the region.
South Asia is a critical geostrategic area bordered by China, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, with the nations bound together by ‘geographical proximity’ over cultural or economic proximity. Cooperation between the nations in South Asia is vital to ensure holistic development in the region as large disparities remain between states.
However, over recent years, SAARC has been at stalemate and has struggled to make progress as compared with other regional organisations. Owing to a long history of colonialism and disjointed power structures in the area, attempts at region building haven’t yielded positive outcomes. The competing power struggles that emerged after the end of colonialism and the violent cartographies which arbitrarily demarcated nascent states created significant international tensions, with each nation concerned about the expansionism of the others.
One of the many reasons that hinders multilateral cooperation between South Asian nations is that the region is comprised of unequal partners. Identified as one of the poorest, most socially complex and underdeveloped areas in terms of trained human resources the region struggles to maintain cohesion and cooperation. Of the many nations, India has emerged as a prominent power in the region whilst most countries like Nepal still fall under the rubric of “less developed country”. The rise of India as a prominent global power has also exacerbated tensions within the region creating an apprehensive atmosphere about its influence in South Asia.
Furthermore, many of the participating SAARC nations have competing power interests and are deadlocked in geopolitical stalemate. The most prominent nations, India and Pakistan have been in a protracted state of pseudo-conflict over border disputes since their inception. Similarly, there exists a similar border issue with Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as India and Nepal. The cartographic issues coupled with insurgencies and cross-border conflicts often exacerbate the differences between the countries.
Various attempts at regional economic cooperation have also suffered at the behest of different economic policies and power relations between the countries. In 2004, the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement was signed with the aim of establishing a free-trade area amongst the countries by 2016 to facilitate holistic economic development. However, this initiative failed due to the hostile relationship between India and Pakistan. The strategic rivalry between the countries has led to the breakdown of multiple initiatives.
In 2017, India launched a satellite to ensure better communication in the South Asian region and all members of the SAARC welcomed it though Pakistan refrained from taking part in the venture. Events and agreements like these promoting cooperation between regional nations have often been stymied by political manoeuvring leaving little chance for mutually advantageous cooperation.
The increasing anxiety between the states in the region has led to more sub-regional cooperation activities becoming viable options for smaller nations. These have led to the formation of organisations like Bangladesh, Bhutan India Nepal Initiative (BBIN) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) for the coordination of trade and economic agreements. Similarly, as the hegemon in the region, India continues to pursue a strategy of reaching out to broader cooperative organisations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to further its growth strategy, thereby antagonising smaller South Asian regional players who may feel left behind.
Owing to the asymmetric and divided nations left by colonial rule, the South Asian region still struggles to create a cooperative environment in the region. The disintegrated cooperation between the nations coupled with their divergent political interests in the region will only create a stalemate that will disrupt chances of regional development and cooperation. It is essential that all member states work towards tackling their competing political interests and differences to ensure the revival of regionalism in South Asia.