Opinion

Story of four lost regional groupings

Arndt Michael | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on March 09, 2015

Many hands To make cooperation go round LeventeGyori/shutterstock.com

South Asian and the Indian Ocean Rim organisations are less than a pale shadow of EU and Asean



On May 26, 2014, Narendra Modi invited the heads of all the SAARC member countries to his swearing-in ceremony. While this important gesture could have marked a new beginning for regional cooperation, such cooperation in South Asia still takes place mainly in the bilateral sphere.

Since 1985, India has been a key founding member of four regional initiatives, none of which has achieved tangible results. The EU and ASEAN both demonstrate that multilateral cooperation between diverse countries can lead to dense economic integration and impressive growth. None of this holds true for the four regional groupings that currently exist in South Asia, the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean Rim, and the Mekong-Ganga area.

Works only informally

It took seven years of protracted negotiations to found Saarc in 1985, with Bangladesh as its initiator. It’s members are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, totalling 1.5 billion people. To date it has held 18 summit meetings, hundreds of ministerial meetings, six conventions and arrived at 11 agreements.

The weak institutional design is based upon a pyramidal structure with summits at the apex, supported by a council of ministers (foreign ministers), a standing committee (foreign secretaries), and technical and action committees. The secretariat, located in Kathmandu, coordinates and monitors the execution of the various activities and prepares meetings. The secretary-general is assisted by a professional and a general services staff. Each member country sends one country director to the secretariat who is assigned to one of eight working divisions. In all, the secretariat has a permanent staff of about 50, and the annual SAARC budget for the secretariat stands at approximately $2.5 million.

The institutional and budgetary chains that the SAARC charter has put around the organisation — on the diplomatic pressure of India — have severely limited its ability to advance cooperation. The charter stipulates that no bilateral and contentious issues are to be discussed and that the Panchsheel are the guiding principles.

There is general accord that SAARC has been somewhat useful as a forum for informal talks between, for example, India and Pakistan, but the major objective of a South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta), though officially in existence since 2004, has still not been achieved.

The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) — called the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation until 2013 — was an Australian initiative in 1995. It was originally meant to encompass economic cooperation as well as security coordination for the countries of the Indian Ocean Rim, with a total population of 2.6 billion.

IORA has 20 members, including Australia, India, Iran, and South Africa. Since its founding after seven years of extensive deliberations, the institutional design of the organisation has stymied all attempts at cooperation. The charter — again crafted by India — prescribes a tripartite model of cooperation with representatives from government, academia and business, with six priority areas of cooperation. An understaffed secretariat exists in Mauritius and the total budget amounts to an annual contribution of $20,000 per member country, plus voluntary contributions for select activities.

Only 14 council of ministers meetings took place prior to 2015. In 2012, Shashi Tharoor, the then-Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, commented that even after seventeen years, cooperation had still not left the declaratory phase.

Poorly staffed

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMST-EC) was founded in 1997, with Thailand as its originator. Today’s members are Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan, and Nepal.

Seven years passed before the first official summit meeting took place. BIMST-EC is primarily administered through the ministries of foreign affairs. Not since November 2014 has a secretariat been finally opened in Dhaka. Officially, there are 14 priority sectors of cooperation, but no budget.

Finally, the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) forum encompasses the six riparian countries of the Mekong and Ganga (Cambodia, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam). The original promoter was Thailand. In 2000, the countries met in Vientiane and agreed to cooperate in the fields of tourism, education, human resource development, culture, communication, and transport. There is no permanent secretariat and no budget. The outcome, after 15 years are six meetings and a few declarations. The then-minister for foreign affairs of Myanmar, Nyan Win, observed in 2007 that progress had been very slow.

These four organisations display three commonalities. First, there is a tendency towards competing regionalism: membership and sectors of cooperation overlap. BIMST-EC and its objectives, for example, are basically Saarc minus Afghanistan and Pakistan plus Thailand and Myanmar.

The MGC overlaps with BIMST-EC and Saarc, and several Saarc countries are also members of the IORA. Second, all four initiatives originated from India’s neighbours. India subsequently markedly influenced the founding documents towards minimal multilateralism.

Third, one of the major principles of cooperation is non-institutionalisation. Comparing the total IORA staff (6) and Saarc staff (50) with the EU Commission staff (33,000) shows just how impossible the task of regional economic cooperation is bound to be. The sheer dearth of manpower, as well as minuscule budgets, make it impossible to advance cooperation. All in all, one does not need to wonder that the absence of adequately equipped secretariats has severely limited the implementation capabilities of all four organisations.

Need for innovation

Clearly, with India as the hegemon in all four organisations, the time seems ripe for India’s new leadership to give an honest answer to the question of how serious regional cooperation is meant, and if Modi’s public embrace of the idea of vasudhaiva kutumbakam — the world is one family — also applies to regional cooperation.

Leaving aside utopian notions of genuine supranational cooperation between the countries of South Asia or the Indian Ocean Rim, it might serve the purpose of cooperation if all four organisations are equipped with innovative charters that permit a certain degree of independent cooperation in economic and social sectors, in addition to a drastic increase in manpower of the respective secretariats.

Does India really stand to lose sovereignty and autonomy in decision-making if modest cooperation in select sectors of cooperation is permitted in a mildly supranational fashion? The latter has certainly never been attempted until today. The re-discovery of regional cooperation in South Asia and beyond should be an important point on the agenda.

The writer teaches in the department of political science, University of Freiburg, Germany. This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.

Published on March 09, 2015
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