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Regional Conference on Expansion of SAARC: Challenges and Opportunities

Proceedings of the conference

Press Release


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, she said.

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 of security.

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 and SAARC".

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 them immediately.

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 the region.

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, he said.

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 that.

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 organization.

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 more effective.

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.

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