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Insights into Editorial: Reaching out to neighbours

Insights into Editorial: Reaching out to neighbours


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is among the world’s largest regional intergovernmental organisations. Since its inception, the countries in the region have become more integrated through enhanced intraregional trade and connectivity.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), geographically proximate to ASEAN, started its journey in 1985 with similar aspirations but over time has failed to deliver. It has been unable to integrate the region through trade and connectivity and continues to be stuck in the quagmire of regional politics and rivalry and stagnates from historical distrust and old animosity. More often, Indo-Pak relations overshadow SAARC meetings.

As ASEAN celebrates 50, reflections on SAARC are failed decades.


ASEAN started with founding members Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand; then added Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam in later years.

The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) came into being in 1985, with founding members Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Afghanistan joined in 2007. Both were set up because the members were embroiled in serious disputes. ASEAN was also more troubled because of its conglomeration of islands and unclear laws dealing with maritime frontiers. Yet, while ASEAN was able to avoid conflict, SAARC was not.

Achievements of SAARC

  • SAFTA: A Free Trade Agreement confined to goods, but excluding all services like information technology. Agreement was signed to reduce customs duties of all traded goods to zero by the year 2016.
  • SAARC visa exemption decided that certain categories of dignitaries should be entitled to a Special Travel document, which would exempt them from visas within the region. 
  • Greater cultural co-operation

Main difference between ASEAN and SAARC

ASEAN’s comparative success in conflict management is the use of alternative dispute resolution, through justice or mediation.

In its first two decades, ASEAN focussed on a limited range of issues, but over time its mandate expanded and now includes climate change, disaster management, counterterrorism, drugs and human trafficking.

  1. On Resolution of disputes:


ASEAN’s greatest success has been its ability to deftly resolve disputes.

                In the early years, for instance, its unity was challenged by the Philippines-Malaysia dispute        over Sabah, but the founding members found a peaceful mechanism to mitigate opposing   claims.

                In the case of SAARC, political squabbles, deep mistrust and military conflict between    India and Pakistan have frustrated regional cooperation. The whole region is suffering from        lost potential due to India-Pakistan hostility which hit a new low when India boycotted the               19th SAARC summit as a result of the Uri terrorist attack, with Bangladesh, Afghanistan and               Bhutan following suit, eventually resulting in cancellation of the summit.

  1. Trade and Economic Growth

Trade in ASEAN has grown rapidly and it has focussed on promoting rapid economic growth and modernisation.


It has created the Comprehensive Investment Agreement (ACIA), which ensures liberalisation and protection of cross-border investments operations, together with best practices for the treatment of foreign investors and investments.


On the other hand, trade amongst the SAARC members stands at 3.5% of their total volume of trade.

  • Initiatives under the South Asian Free Trade Association have failed to make much headway.
  • Sub regional initiatives like the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement also have stalled.


  1. Regional Connectivity


The Federation of ASEAN Travel Associations (FATA) has called on the ASEAN nations to waive entry requirements amongst the member states.


A feasibility study has been conducted on the development of a rail link from Singapore to Kunming in southern China to enhance seamless connectivity among the ASEAN nations to boost intraregional trade and people-to-people connectivity.

Projects aimed at promoting the region as a tourist destination have also been undertaken.


On the other hand, the SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme only allows certain categories of dignitaries to be exempt from visas, excluding ordinary citizens from accessing unimpeded travel in the region.

  • It is difficult for Indians to enter Pakistan and vice versa.
  • Even citizens of other SAARC countries who have visited either India or Pakistan before and now wish to travel to the other face hassles during visa issuance by either country.
  • SAARC infrastructural problems plague connectivity.


  1. Existence of Practical diplomatic tools


The main difference between ASEAN and SAARC lies in the existence of practical diplomatic tools to address these issues.


ASEAN member States and other regional and international stakeholders created in 1994 the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to promote confidence-building and develop preventive diplomacy in the region.

Often criticized for its lack of efficiency in tackling long-standing issues like Myanmar’s democratization, the ARF has nevertheless established a diplomatic forum to address these specific concerns.


On the other hand, A SAARC Regional Forum to discuss disputes would be a proper way to take political pressure away from SAARC Summits but the creation of such a mechanism seems unlikely as long as SAARC lacks a common vision of regionalism.


  1. Sub-regional short-cuts


As the biggest country of SAARC, India is trying to exert leadership by forming subregional initiatives like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Another objective is to isolate Pakistan.

Such attempts to forge sub-regional ties at the cost of jeopardising the regional vision for unity have not been witnessed in ASEAN.


When ASEAN was criticised for taking in Myanmar in spite of its military rule, the grouping emphasised the importance of keeping open the channels of communication and engagement as a better means to influence the regime. Bilateral bickering never got in the way of trade and travel.


  1. On the political and economic continuum


On the political and economic continuum, ASEAN has behaved pragmatically and sensibly whereas South Asia has been bogged down by bilateral animosity and the bitter legacy of partition.

  • ASEAN members have avoided showing outward hostility against each other and have tried to resolve differences through dialogue, engagement and cooperation.
  • Politicians in SAARC have mostly catered to their domestic constituents without having any broad regional vision, so that it takes years to sign agreements and even more time to implement them.
  • As a regional organisation, while ASEAN has grown from strength to strength.



The major limitations of SAARC are Domination of India, Political differences and inequality among members. SAARC charter excludes bilateral and contentious issues discussion on forum.  Obstructionist policies of Pakistan have created problems in economic cooperation.

SAARC despite these limitations and poor performance, however, remains a useful tool for smaller countries to promote understanding and cooperation at bilateral level. 

There is a serious and concerted effort should be made by the political leadership of SAARC, led primarily by India and Pakistan, to revitalise the regional body.