Regional Conference on Expansion of SAARC:
Challenges and Opportunities
Organised by Institute of Foreign Affairs
(IFA) & FES
29-30 June, Lalitpur
A two day regional conference was organized
by the Institute of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with Friedrich
Ebert Stiftung, on the challenges arising from, and opportunities
available with, the expansion of South Asian Association for Regional
Cooperation in Kathmandu from 29 to 30 June 2006. The decision
by SAARC, taken during the 13th summit in Dhaka, to induct Afghansitan
as its new member and China and Japan as observers has indeed
thrown open the gates of speculation as to the future of a regional
organization that houses one-fifth of humanity. Participants from
all the SAARC member nations, except Maldives, attended the seminar
at this timely discussion on this important topic. The Afghan
participant, although did make his working paper available for
discussions, could not attend the conference because of unavoidable
circumstances at home. Given the important role that the TRACK
II process has played in the decisions of this regional organization,
it was expected that the discussions would identify new areas
of cooperation, look at the implications of the addition of new
members and observers in the organization and last but not the
least buttress TRACK II.
The opening session, attended by foreign policy
experts, political luminaries and diplomats including the American
ambassador to the Kingdom of Nepal James F. Moriarty, laid the
foundation for what was to follow for the next two days. IFA
acting executive director Harishchandra Ghimire highlighted
the objectives of the seminar during his welcome address.
During his keynote, Deputy Prime Minister
and Foreign Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, the chief guest,
listed some of the gains made by SAARC since its inception both
at the people-to-people level contacts and core areas of cooperation
such as fighting terrorism and promoting economic cooperation.
He said that although the achievements of the organization over
the past two decades do not match with the popular aspiration,
he expressed his optimism that its expansion would infuse new
spirit to the task of alleviating the socio-economic plight
of the people.
Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives
Chitra Lekha Yadav, who chaired the inaugural, said that
it is time to assess the achievements of the regional organization
and that the participants must discuss the issues that are there
for a proper future course. She said that while doing so the
participants must bear in mind that SAARC's future development
will be demand driven, rights based and highly politicized.
Only an inclusionary process can make SAARC's future bright,
In his vote of thanks to the participants
at the opening session Dev Raj Dahal, the FES representative
in Nepal, expressed his anxiety about whether the inclusion
of Afghanistan and other observers would make the organization
more cohesive or further polarized. He said that Afghanistan's
inclusion has made the organization truly reflect the South
Asian geography apart from serving as a bridge between South
Asia and the Middle Eastern countries. Dahal wished that SAARC's
opportunities for cooperation were better defined and policy
coordination made more impressive. Still, the civil society
groups have already created a South Asian public and that their
aspirations must be institutionalized, he said.
The business sessions began after the inaugural,
the first of which was chaired by Sridhar Khatri, former
executive director of IFA. He laid down the framework of the
session's discussions saying: There are nuclear negotiations
going on between the United States and India which will have
its impact on South Asia. Similar tie-ups are seen with Pakistan
and China which have an impact on the traditional security issues.
There are also non-traditional security issues which need to
be dealt with. Meanwhile, both Sri Lanka and Nepal are bogged
down in their own peace issues. I hope the new paradigm of human
security and comprehensive security will also be discussed.
Ms Huma Baqai's presentation from Pakistan
was titled, "Emerging Trends in International Security:
Approaches to Peace and Cooperation" where she dealt with
contemporary theoretical knowledge on the meaning of security
which she said was both widening and deepening. The comments
from the floor that followed the presentation had to do with
the nitty-gritty of present day bilateral irritants and the
difficulties of overcoming them to pursue the regional interests.
The second presentation was on "Strategies
for Enhancing Comprehensive Security in South Asia: Areas of
Collective Action in Multilateral Forum" by Smruti Patnaik.
Her idea of comprehensive security in the region would entail
the need to fight terrorism, pursue economic integration, expand
transport and communication linkages and overcome the energy
challenges facing the region. The challenges posed by the obsessive
pursuit of bilateralism, that she mentioned in her presention,
received most of the comments of the regional participants.
As the title suggests, Madhukar Shumsher
Rana's "Comprehensive Security for South Asia: Conceptualization
Towards a Regional Strategy" sought to compare the concepts
developed by the Japanese and Canadians and the inadequacy of
the present international governance structure, or the United
Nations system, to deal with issues that are beyond the national
interests of the Security Council Five. His idea is to have
string states in the region with a SAARC Security Council coordinating
security related activities in a comprehensive manner, whether
it is security related, related with economic or food policy
or something to do with the environment.
Most of the floor queries directed to Rana
had to do with the limitations of the framework that already
exists in SAARC and how to implement his concept, some even
blaming him to be talking about morals in a not-so moral world
The second session chaired by Keshav Jha
saw presentations by Prof Dr. Khalida Ghaus on "The
Changing Security Spectrum of South Asia: Consequences for SAARC"
and Mr. Sugeeswara Senadhira on "China and South
Asia: Possible cooperation between Shanghai Cooperation Organization
Ms. Ghaus' paper aims to look at the necessity
to give a fillip to the notion of security in South Asia because
of the overwhelming problems faced by the region with the onslaught
of globalization and big power interests. The South Asian must
develop the capability to identify their problems and develop
institutions to deal with them, was her contention. Her attempts
to characterize ethnic problems as having religious origin drew
some criticisms from the participants but her request to get
into the underlying factors rather than surfacial ones quelled
Senadheera, meanwhile, analyses the security
needs of China and India before going on to deal with the potentials
offered by central Asia and the likely cooperation here between
the two giants for gains in the fields of energy and trade.
The question of India's cautious attitude to join the SCO, the
Pakistan linkages and the border problems between China and
India were the focus of comments from the floor. He also addressed
some queries raised by curious participants regarding the Sri
Lankan peace process.
In the second day of the seminar, chairperson
of the first and second session, Bhekh Bahadur Thapa,
took to the floor saying that his experience as foreign minister
of Nepal had shown him that the lack of progress in the Track
I process and the seriousness of work shown by professionals
and researchers in the field of regionalism were contradictory.
With expansion, we see both challenges and hope and the need
today is to close the gap between the affluent section and others
in the region, he said.
Shafi Sami's "SAARC: Future Directions"
presentation was loaded with his own personal experience with
the development of regionalism in South Asia. He listed the
achievements made so far and the agenda for the future including
expanding the staff and expertise at the SAARC Secretariat,
initiation of SAARC projects in member countries, increased
cooperation in soft sectors and further economic integration.
In "SAARC: Dynamics of New Regionalism"
Mahendra P. Lama discussed the factors shaping today's
regionalism today with focus on South Asia's own experience
with economic integration efforts and sub-regionalism. His thesis
was that cooperation by member states must be pursued with extra-regional
countries for economic, trade and infrastructural benefits.
Lama attracted queries from the floor regarding his endorsement
of the use of the Nathu-La pass for South Asian trade with China
and his energy cooperation proposals both within and outside
Harischandra Ghimire in his presentation
titled, "WTO and Regionalism with special reference to
SAFTA" discussed the need to act collectively by South
Asians to benefit from the world trade regime. For this, he
discusses the regional trading regime, intra-regional trading
potentials and how the less developed trading partners can benefit
from the enabling clauses of existing trade regimes for the
benefits of the least developed countries.
In the session that followed, Posh Raj
Pandey made his presentation on "Roles of Business
Community and Administration for the Implementation of the Treaty
Obligations of BIMST-EC, SAFTA and WTO on Free Trade".
He was questioned about his endorsement of regionalism vis a
vis bilateralism and how Nepal was dealing with compliance issues
related with reaching out to the business community and the
institutions set up for the purpose.
In "Private Sector and Conflict Management"
Gautam Ghosh highlighted the role of the private sector
in the national economies and their ability to deal with issues
more efficiently. He presented several examples where the private
sector has played a major role in tackling internal conflicts.
But when questions were raised regarding the back-up needed,
he did accede that the government had a very important role
in all these efforts.
The last session of the seminar was chaired
by Dinesh Bhattarai who kicked off the discussions saying
that the initial caution shown by SAARC regarding its expansion
had been pulled down by expert recommendation. Today there is
great interest among many powers to join the regional organization,
Although the session was to see five presentations
according to the original programme, the inability of the Afghan
presenter deprived the participants of the experiences and aspirations
of the new member of SAARC. His paper was distributed among
the participants to be perused at their disposal in spite of
Prof. Sayed Anwar Hussein discussed
the problems Afghanistan was facing in the global scenario and
cautioned the regional organization against falling into the
potholes that could come in the way in the enthusiasm of expanding
SAARC. Some of the comments on his presentation "Afghanistan
in SAARC: Challenge more than Opportunity" tried to belittle
the 'challenge' part of his presentation with the argument that
there is hardly a South Asian member that does not share similar
challenges which Afghanistan faces.
Bishal Rai's "Expansion of SAARC: Bhutan's Perspective"
revealed the hopes that the Himalayan country has harboured
regarding SAARC because of the mitigation of its small-size
psychology by cooperation deals. The more the merrier, appeared
to be the Bhutanese perspective on the expansion of the regional
The last paper of the seminar was Chandra
Dev Bhatta's "Role of Civil Society in Peacebuilding
in South Asia". The conflicts in South Asia, Bhatta says,
were either inherited since state formation or acquired later
through crisis of governance. He then discussed the role of
soft power in peacebuilding and the importance of linking them
across the region for regional civic solidarity to make them
Chairperson Bhattarai was given the responsibility
to wrap up the two day conference which he did by saying:
SAARC and its 20 years have not gone without
achievements, although modest. When we decided to take in Afghanistan
as member and China and Japan as observers, the interest has
suddenly increased among other powers to be a part of it. Its
trade potential has been noticed by others although intra-regional
trade is miniscule. The geostrategic position of South Asia
is great. It has been the strategic theatre and treated as a
backyard until some years back. The two rising powers, economies,
China and India, have signed strategic tie-ups. This coming
together of the potential countries has drawn the attention
of the global powers. They also have huge markets for them to
exploit. While discussing expansion, we should ask ourselves
whether we will be opening the floodgates and whether we will
be able to manage it.
Bhattarai thanked all the participants for
their active involvement in the discussions.