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Unlikely to be a major forum

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezNovember 26, 2014

As leaders of eight South Asian nations meet in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, analyst Lawrence Sáez tells DW that domestic pressures in member states may continue to hinder any possible regional cooperation.

SAARC Summit Nepal Kathmandu 2014
Image: picture-alliance/EPA/Narendra Shrestha

Since its establishment in 1985, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has been marred by tensions between its largest members India and Pakistan.

"More often than not, India-Pakistan disputes have overshadowed the organization," Nepal's former Prime Minister, Baburam Bhattarai, was quoted by Reuters as writing in the Republica newspaper. Even at this year's summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to hold one-on-one meetings with all the member countries' leaders except Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Furthermore, little progress has been achieved so far in terms of closer business and trade ties among the member states with South Asia remaining one of the least economically integrated regions in the world. Despite concluding a South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement in 2006, SAARC nations conduct just five percent of their total commerce with each other.

China Wirtschaft Fabrik Produktion
Despite signing a free trade pact, SAARC nations conduct just five percent of their total commerce with each otherImage: Reuters

SAARC's eight members currently include: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, while countries such as China and the US hold observer status. The body was set up to promote closer economic and political ties between the countries of the region - home to more than a fifth of the world's population.

Lawrence Sáez, South Asia expert and professor at the University of London SOAS, says in a DW interview that based on past experience, there is little chance that any significant breakthroughs will emerge from this year's summit.

DW: What will be the main issues topping the agenda of this year's SAARC summit?

Lawrence Sáez: Nominally the theme of the summit is regional integration, a rather broad and obvious theme. In practice, the discussion will centre on concrete proposals being made by India, namely an improved visa regime for all SAARC member states and the idea of creating a currency union.

The issue of greater connectivity has also been mulled. The most controversial topic will be China's proposed bid for membership to the association.

What are the main obstacles hindering greater economic integration and connectivity in South Asia?

Domestic pressures have hindered any possible cooperation, notably between India and Pakistan. Since SAARC is an organization that operates on the basis of unanimity and since any controversial topic is automatically discarded from discussion, I would argue that SAARC's own institutional setup has inhibited cooperation.

As the largest member country, what role do you think India will try to play in this and upcoming SAARC summits? What will India be pushing for?

Narendra Modi has made regional integration the core of his foreign policy. Some of his administration's actions on this front have been encouraging.

This summit, though, will be a true test of Modi's commitment to regional integration. India has made some interesting proposals, notably the proposals for a single visa regime for SAARC member states and a currency union.

In your view, how likely is a meeting between Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif and Indian PM Narendra Modi? Why?

India and Pakistan are engaged in a rather petty diplomatic standoff that has been brewing since the summer. It is sadly characteristic of the dynamic that has prevented greater openness between India and Pakistan.

The summit is a good forum for Modi and Sharif to be magnanimous and to put these silly diplomatic maneuverings aside. So far neither country has made an effort to demonstrate leadership and goodwill.

What are the chances of any deals or breakthroughs in this summit given the ongoing animosity between some of its most important members?

Based on past experience, there is little chance that any significant breakthroughs will emerge from this summit, particularly in light of the ongoing diplomatic row between India and Pakistan. The proposed membership bid by China will also generate controversy.

Indien Narendra Modi trifft Nawaz Sharif in Neu-Dheli 27.05.2014
Sáez: 'The summit is a good forum for Modi and Sharif to put silly diplomatic maneuverings aside'Image: Reuters

Many analysts argue China's growing influence in the region is looming over this year's SAARC summit. What is your view on this and why is India refusing to renew China's suggestion to be raised from "observer" status?

I think that India is right in opposing China's membership bid to SAARC. To remain truly regional, SAARC should maintain a relatively closed membership. I think, however, that the extension of SAARC membership would be far more appropriate, for cultural and historical reasons.

Do you see the SAARC Summit becoming increasingly more important in the coming years?

Given the institutional framework of SAARC, which is guided by the principle of unanimity and the exclusion of discussion of controversial issues, then SAARC summits are unlikely to become an important diplomatic forum any time soon.

Lawrence Sáez is Professor in the Political Economy of Asia in the Department of Politics at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS), University of London.