Inspiration for SAARC?
By learning from the institutionalization of ASEAN and emulating its successes‚ SAARC can catapult the South Asian region to enable its own immense growth potential‚ and in doing so‚ give life to its Charter: to enhance regional stability‚ and improve the quality of life for the people of South Asia
In envisioning development in South Asia, inspiration can be found in Southeast Asia, which has become a dominant player in the global economy – with its expanding middle class, reduced poverty, large-scale industrial production, and advanced technology. These tangible factors aside, however, there is another aspect that merits closer examination: the growing regional integration facilitated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN members have for almost 50 years engaged in diplomatic dialogue and economic activities that have fostered mutual trust and interconnected markets. Regional integration has become the road for multi-national engagement at a multitude of levels and with an almost endless list of stakeholders, and a way to ensure a market-friendly investment producing climate across the region. ASEAN’s history and contribution to the success of Southeast Asia should, and can, inspire SAARC.
Of course, we cannot deny the uniqueness of the Southeast Asian region, which has had its own history, culture, political struggles, social stratification, and inter-regional dynamics that are clearly different from those of South Asia. Nonetheless, there are certain similarities that deserve attention. Established in 1967, at the height of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, ASEAN has endured a disastrous financial crisis, cross-border tensions and internal political turbulence. The founding of ASEAN and its development into a globally recognized and successful regional organization – despite vast religious, ethnic, cultural, and political diversity – can be a model for SAARC, admittedly a model that needs to be adapted and framed for South Asia and its requirements.
ASEAN gradually but eventually evolved into its present institutional form after the 1997 financial crisis. First, the heads of governments assumed a greater and more direct role in navigating the direction of ASEAN – with growing international challenges in the post-Cold War era, the institutionalization of meetings among government leaders created a platform conducive to fostering economic growth and mutual cooperation. Second, the role of the Secretary General of the ASEAN Secretariat was elevated to a ministerial status and given expanded responsibility to act as ASEAN Secretary General rather than merely as Secretary General of the Secretariat of ASEAN. Third, people-to-people diplomacy and cooperation were strengthened by also engaging and involving non-ASEAN and non-governmental entities in conversation. Fourth, the ASEAN Charter came into effect in 2008, functioning as a strong basis of providing legal status and institutional structure for ASEAN – it lists the short and long term targets for ASEAN, and incorporating the issues of accountability and compliance of every member. As SAARC considers further institutionalization, it should examine ASEAN’s operations and history of institutionalization for guidance.
Furthermore, some notable achievements of ASEAN, as noted by the Asian Development Bank, have been: (1) the establishment of strong links among member countries, which allow them to have greater bargaining power in dealing with non-ASEAN countries; (2) crafting regional solutions for regional problems; and (3) preventing wars among members by keeping regional tension on a low level. Every year, about 1,000 ASEAN meetings are held. The sheer volume of this number attests to the degree of active involvement by the members at a multitude of levels and stakeholders. With a regional cooperation framework that encourages political stability and diplomacy, ASEAN countries can “pursue their national economic development” in the context of regionalism. Moreover, ASEAN’s organizational connectivity gives it greater bargaining power in managing relationships with ASEAN-plus nations such as China, Japan, Korea, and India. Just as ASEAN has contributed to socio-political peace and economic stability in Southeast Asia, so too could SAARC contribute to the benefit of all of South Asia. The current challenges of lack of organizational connectivity and effective monitoring system of SAARC projects, multiple administrative layers and non-tariff barriers are not unique to SAARC. ASEAN, too, faced similar challenges at the inception of its establishment. ASEAN member countries were still able to develop a strong institutional framework and encourage cooperation in the face of Communist insurgencies, regime collapses, and financial disaster. Again, SAARC can benefit by more closely examining the nature and circumstance of ASEAN’s effort to strengthen regional ties.
By learning from the institutionalization of ASEAN and emulating its successes, SAARC can catapult the South Asian region to enable its own immense growth potential, and in doing so, give life to its Charter: to enhance regional stability, nurture mutual understanding, and improve the quality of life for the people of South Asia. SAARC can be as influential, as instrumental, and as invigorating as ASEAN has been. South Asia can become the next economic powerhouse. –JENIK RADON & JIYOON HAN
Radon is Adjunct Professor at Columbia University; Han, Research Associate at New York City-based Radon Law Offices
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