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India in Transition

Assessing Regional Cooperation in South Asia and Beyond

Arndt Michael
March 9, 2015

On May 26, 2014, Narendra Modi invited the heads of all the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (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 have achieved any tangible results. The European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) both demonstrate that multilateral cooperation between diverse groups of 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. The genesis and cooperative state-of-affairs of all four exhibit comparable deficiencies, testament to Indian insistence on minimal multilateralism.

In the case of SAARC, it took seven years of protracted negotiations until the organization was eventually founded in 1985, with Bangladesh as its initiator. Today’s members are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, totalling 1.5 billion people. Since the inception of SAARC, there have been eighteen summit meetings, hundreds of ministerial meetings, and, as of 2015, there are six conventions and eleven 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 SAARC 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 fifty, 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 organization – on the diplomatic pressure of India – have severely limited the organization’s 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 of the organization. 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 “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 now has twenty members, including Australia, India, Iran, and South Africa. Since its founding after seven years of extensive deliberations, the institutional design of the organization has stymied all attempts at cooperation. The Charter – again crafted by India – prescribes a three partite model of cooperation with representatives from government, academia, and the business world, with six priority areas of cooperation. An utterly understaffed secretariat with only six employees exists in Mauritius and coordinates IORA meetings. The total budget amounts to an annual contribution of $20,000 per member country, plus voluntary contributions by members for select activities. All together, only fourteen 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.

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, totalling 1.5 billion people. Seven years passed before the first official summit meeting between the members of the organization took place. BIMST-EC is primarily administered through the respective ministries of foreign affairs. Not since November 2014 has a secretariat been finally opened in Dhaka, with a staff number even smaller than that of SAARC. Officially, there are fourteen priority sectors of cooperation, but no budget as of 2015. Besides three summits in its eighteen years of existence, the envisaged BIMSTE-EC FTA as the major objective remains at large.

Finally, the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) forum encompasses 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. Rather, there are “Annual Ministerial Meetings,” back to back with “ASEAN Ministerial Meetings” and regular “Senior Official’s Meetings.” The outcome, after fifteen years of MGC’s existence, are, in essence, 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 organizations 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 neighbors. India subsequently activated her diplomacy and markedly influenced the respective founding documents towards minimal multilateralism. Third, one of the major principles of cooperation is non-institutionalization. Two of the organizations today possess an utterly understaffed secretariat. 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 organizations.

Clearly, with India as the hegemon in all four organizations, 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 countries of South Asia or the Indian Ocean Rim, it might serve the purpose of cooperation if all four organizations 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 any degree of her 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. With Indian PM Modi rejuvenating Indian domestic and foreign politics, the re-discovery of regional cooperation in South Asia and beyond should be an important point on the agenda.

Arndt Michael is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Political Science, University of Freiburg, Germany and author of the multi-award winning book India’s Foreign Policy and Regional Multilateralism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and partially funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation. IiT articles are re-published in the op-ed pages of The Hindu: Business Line. This article can be read here.

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