Your search keywords:

Don McLain Gill: South Asian states unlikely to establish another regional organization

Don McLain Gill: South Asian states unlikely to establish another regional organization

Don McLain Gill is a geopolitical analyst, author, and lecturer at the Department of International Studies, De La Salle University in Manila, Philippines. Kamal Dev Bhattarai of ApEx talked with him about the changing geopolitical situation and regionalism. 

How do you see the history of regionalism in South Asia?

Following the Second World War, there has been a significant shift toward the formulation of trade and inter-state relations. As a result, states became eager for a new model that would not only promote and expand trade but would also contribute to peace by establishing international cooperative agreements and institutions to support them. Since the 1960s, there has been a noteworthy increase in regional cooperative projects all over the world. This pushed the developing world to explore the possibilities and opportunities of regional cooperation. However, it was important for states to recognize certain requirements in order to forge an effective regional group. One of these requirements was the need to look outward and limit self-centered interests that may hinder collective goals. However, this seems to be easier said than done, given the variation in every state’s history and priority, which may conflict with regional priorities.

Like elsewhere, the concept of regional cooperation gained attraction and acceptance in South Asia. South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established in 1985 to enhance and promote intra-regional trade and economic cooperation. Later, South Asian Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) was signed in 1993. This was then followed by the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement, which came into effect in 2006. However, Despite the enthusiasm brought by the spread of regional cooperation, the results have not been entirely praiseworthy.

While talking about regionalism in this area, SAARC obviously comes at the forefront, but it is in a state of limbo.  Do you see any chance of SAARC’s revival?

 It is crucial to understand that each region consists of its own dynamics and characteristics. Both external and internal factors must be taken into consideration when evaluating the success and effectiveness of regional cooperation. South Asian states have similar geographical, cultural, and societal features that are supposed to create a conducive environment for effective cooperation. Nevertheless, despite such advantageous factors, South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world. This can be attributed to both economic and non-economic factors ranging from tariff and non-tariff barriers and lack of comparative advantage to physical connectivity, divergent threat perceptions, and asymmetric power relations. 

Moreover, the evident historic dilemma between India and Pakistan poses a critical challenge for SAARC’s revival. Most especially since Pakistan’s consistent support for terror activities throughout the region serves as a major impediment to attaining a conducive environment for regional growth and cooperation. Moreover, Pakistan’s desire to involve extra-regional powers like China to undermine India’s territorial integrity, security, and sovereignty presents a deep-rooted challenge for the regional organization to come out of.

Can BIMSTEC become an alternative to SAARC?

With the rise of the Indo-Pacific construct, South Asia has become a sub-region to a greater Indo-Pacific. This creates more opportunities for South Asian states to expand the scope and boundaries of cooperation beyond the immediate neighborhood and into the other subregions of the Indo-Pacific. Thus, the utility of interregional frameworks like BIMSTEC must be maximized by its members to explore more opportunities for economic and security cooperation amidst the deadlock faced in SAARC. 

BIMSTEC serves as an important sub-regional arrangement where both South and Southeast Asian states can diversify and strengthen alternative economic options at a time when the Indo-Pacific is facing critical shifts brought by the unfolding US-China power competition. This provides an opportunity for BIMSTEC to regain its significance, given the vital economic and security linkages between Bay of Bengal and the Western Pacific. For South Asian states, this presents an important avenue to offset the strategic losses faced from SAARC and reinvest in alternative inter-regional platforms such as BIMSTEC.

Can countries of this region consider creating another regional bloc?

I believe it is unlikely for South Asian states to devote resources again to establish another regional organization. This contradicts the emerging trend in the Indo-Pacific of forging loose and area-specific arrangements between states that share common interests, concerns, and goals. Such arrangements can be in the form of minilateral groupings. I believe there is more potential for like-minded South Asian states to cooperate on key issue areas of mutual interest and concern through such a framework rather than reinvesting in traditional forms of regional cooperation.

Why did South East Asia succeed in embracing a robust regional body like ASEAN, but South Asia failed to do so?

ASEAN and SAARC are two regional organizations that were formed during the Cold War Era amidst the emerging trend toward regionalism and regional economic cooperation. However, ASEAN's function as a regional bloc is far more successful than that of SAARC. While the former is often considered as the benchmark for regional cooperation in the developing world, the latter is known for being the least integrated region in the world. There are several reasons behind this vast operational gap. Unlike SAARC, ASEAN has invested in enhancing connectivity projects between its member countries. Moreover, ASEAN’s intra-regional trade, despite its limitations, remains quite praiseworthy at 25 percent compared to SAARC, which is barely at five percent. 

However, aside from economic evaluations, it is more important to highlight the geopolitical differences between both organizations. Unlike ASEAN, the power dynamics in SAARC is far more asymmetrical. Moreover, the intersectional historical, cultural, and political dynamics of SAARC members are also significantly different from ASEAN members. The nature of protracted intra-regional conflicts, ongoing land boundary tensions, and cross border terrorism in South Asia is also more complicated than that of Southeast Asia. Thus, these are some of the important factors that need to be acknowledged in better understanding why SAARC continues to trail behind when it comes to regional integration.

How do the major powers like the US and China see regionalism in South Asia?

The US-China power competition centers on either strengthening or revising the established order in the Indo-Pacific. For the past few years, China has been seeking to present an alternative order in the form of the Global Security Initiative, which aims to push its role in Asia at the expense of US leadership. This may lead Beijing to exploit loopholes in key regional organizations to turn it against the West. We have seen attempts from China to turn the BRICS and SCO as anti-West groupings, but it has been unsuccessful. 

Similarly, the US and China are also competing for influence within ASEAN. However, such a scenario is unlikely for SAARC, given the lack of influence the organization has on South Asian politics. Therefore, it is likely for the US and China to directly engage with regional states for the purpose of deepening their respective strategic footprints in the vital sub-region of the Indo-Pacific.