All Saarc countries, with the arguable exception of Bhutan, grapple with serious security challenges. Bangladesh has seen a horrific spike in attacks on prominent liberals over the last year, Afghanistan is again witnessing high-profile attacks by the Taliban and India and Pakistan have long lived under the shadow of terror.
The institution of Saarc interior and home ministers’ conference, therefore, exists for good reason – but we have unfortunately seen the multilateral gathering again degenerate into an unpleasant India-Pakistan spectacle in Islamabad, with home ministers indirectly targeting the other side and even avoiding the luncheon meeting for participants. The views of ministers from other Saarc countries were entirely drowned out amid the bilateral noise.
The bickering at Islamabad may have been good theatre for politicians to rally their constituencies in both countries but the Saarc proceedings are just another example about how out of step South Asia continues to be when it comes to collectively tackling policy challenges. It is a particular tragedy that while other nations and multilateral groups are invested in breaking down regional barriers we are seeing boundaries harden in the subcontinent. South Asia regrettably remains the least integrated region in the world; an area that has 16.5% of the world’s population accounts for just 2% of the world trade. Economists point out that its intra-regional trade is less than 6% of its total trade and accounts for 2% of the region’s GDP.
That intra-regional trade generates 20% of East Asia’s GDP is a compelling reminder as to how much our region is missing out. Asean offers a remarkable example of policymakers pursuing greater integration despite challenges. The grouping’s heads of government adopted a Master Plan on Asean connectivity in 2010 which included a list of prioritised projects that each member intended to implement “with agreed-upon timelines”.
The focus was on physical infrastructure and connectivity, institutional processes to address obstacles to movements on goods and services and mechanisms to improve people-to-people contact. Not all initiatives have proceeded according to plan owing to funding constraints in a difficult economic climate but the grouping has not let up on its ambition to establish an Asean economic community as a single market and production base. As a group it is now contemplating the impact of China’s Maritime Silk Road on its own connectivity projects, while the two big powers in South Asia spend their energies scoring political points.
The global economy’s centre of gravity is shifting to Asia in which Asean and East Asia will play key roles. India will be a big player too owing to its size but losing sight of regional integration is a self-limiting mistake that does not serve our aspirational millions well.