The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are prominent regional organisations of South and South-east Asia, established to facilitate cooperation and integration within their respective geographic regions.
SAARC comprises South Asian nations, that include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. On the other hand, ASEAN brings together Southeast Asian countries, i.e. Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Despite being geographically close, these two entities have distinct objectives, challenges, and approaches to regional cooperation, and can be seen in their success/failure over decades.
SAARC, founded in 1985, aims to promote collective growth and development in South Asia. It seeks to foster economic, social, and cultural ties among member nations to tackle common challenges, such as poverty, illiteracy, and underdevelopment. However, the organisation has faced numerous obstacles, mainly due to historical and political tensions between some member states, hindering its progress toward meaningful integration. The Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan has been a longstanding issue that has impeded cooperation and trust within SAARC. Additionally, intra-regional trade remains significantly lower compared to other regional organisations, limiting the potential benefits of economic integration.
In contrast, ASEAN, established in 1967 with similar objectives, has made incredible strides toward regional cooperation and integration. ASEAN has been successful in creating a platform for dialogue and conflict resolution among member states, helping to prevent conflicts and maintain regional stability. The principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member nations, known as the “ASEAN Way,” has facilitated constructive engagement and consensus-building.
Achievements of ASEAN
ASEAN’s achievements in economic integration have been particularly noteworthy. The establishment of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1992 has significantly boosted intra-regional trade and investment flows. ASEAN’s economic success is also evident in the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, which aims to create a single market and production base, facilitating the flow of goods, services, and skilled labour within the region. Further, the AEC has enhanced ASEAN’s competitiveness globally and attracted substantial foreign investment.
One of the key reasons for ASEAN’s success is its ability to adopt a pragmatic and inclusive approach to regional cooperation. Unlike SAARC, ASEAN member states have focused on addressing achievable goals and gradually expanding their initiatives. The organisation has recognized the importance of building trust and confidence among member states through step-by-step integration efforts. This approach has allowed ASEAN to ride out various challenges and accommodate diverse political systems and economic structures within its member nations.
Furthermore, ASEAN has prioritised the development of infrastructure and connectivity to strengthen economic ties among member countries. The Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity has promoted physical, institutional, and people-to-people connectivity, fostering greater mobility and exchange of goods and services. This emphasis on connectivity has facilitated regional trade and enhanced the overall economic resilience of ASEAN member states. In terms of institutional framework, ASEAN’s structure allows for regular dialogue and cooperation at various levels. The ASEAN Summit, ASEAN Ministerial Meetings, and sectoral bodies enable leaders and officials from member states to engage in discussions on pressing regional issues. Moreover, ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship system ensures equal participation and representation among all member countries.
Learnings for SAARC
ASEAN’s success can be largely attributed to its consensus-driven decision-making process. Decisions within ASEAN are made collectively, ensuring that every member state’s interests are taken into account. SAARC, on the other hand, has struggled with decision-making due to disputes and lack of consensus among its members. SAARC has failed to separate the economic issues from political ones and the decisions are, at times, driven by domestic politics rather than a realistic approach to the issues.
Focus on economic integration:
ASEAN has made significant strides in economic integration through the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). SAARC, on the other hand, has been slower in its efforts to achieve economic integration. By prioritising economic cooperation and harmonising trade policies, SAARC can stimulate economic growth and attract foreign investments, benefitting all member states. Dr. Suresh Rajan (2016) accentuates how the AEC has led to increased intra-regional trade and investment, and facilitated economic growth among member states. Likewise, an analysis by Ahmed and Mahmud (2017) underscores the potential benefits of deeper economic cooperation for SAARC, proposing that harmonising trade policies, reducing non-tariff barriers, and promoting regional value chains could lead to similar positive outcomes.
Acharya and Yusof (2019) highlight the efforts undertaken by ASEAN to improve physical connectivity, enhance transportation networks, and advance digital infrastructure. These developments have not only boosted economic activities but also facilitated people-to-people contacts and cultural exchanges.
SAARC should focus on collaborative infrastructure projects to improve connectivity, reduce trade barriers, and promote people-to-people exchanges. This would foster economic growth and cooperation within the region. SAARC can draw lessons from ASEAN’s experiences and prioritise collaborative infrastructure projects to improve connectivity within the region. Shahbaz et al. (2018) suggest that such initiatives can promote trade, attract foreign investments, and narrow development gaps among member states.
ASEAN has successfully facilitated people-to-people contacts through visa-free travel, cultural exchanges, and educational programs. This has led to increased understanding and trust among member states, strengthening regional ties. SAARC can draw from ASEAN’s initiatives and promote similar programs to enhance people-to-people interactions and cultural exchange. This is vital for building a sense of regional identity and fostering cooperation.
Malik (2018), argues that initiatives like educational exchanges, cultural programs, and youth forums can build bridges between nations and create a sense of shared identity, fostering a more cohesive and interconnected South Asian region.
Crisis management and conflict resolution:
ASEAN has a proven track record in crisis management and conflict resolution within the region. The organisation has effectively addressed various challenges, such as territorial disputes and regional security issues. SAARC can learn from ASEAN’s experiences in conflict resolution and develop mechanisms to address regional issues peacefully. Active dialogue and cooperation among member states are essential in managing conflicts and maintaining stability in the region.
Regional development funds:
ASEAN has established several regional development funds (e.g. ASEAN Infrastructure Fund, SME Fund etc.) to support economic projects, poverty alleviation, and capacity building within member countries. Rana (2017) highlights how these funds have supported critical developmental projects, benefiting all nations in the region. SAARC can create similar mechanisms to provide financial assistance, ensuring that all member states benefit from regional cooperation.
In the grand tapestry of regional integration, by being successful under similar circumstances, ASEAN gives a roadmap for SAARC to embrace its potential and foster a symphony of collaboration among its member states. With determination, inclusivity, SAARC can transcend borders, bridge divides, and create a prosperous and interconnected region for generations to come. The journey towards enhanced regional cooperation and integration begins today, guided by the collective vision for a stronger and more united South Asia.