There is a persistent lament about how regionalism has never really lived up to its potential in South Asia given there is so much in common – language, food, culture, religion. So, why aren’t the states closer together?

And why hasn’t SAARC, the big regional body, made up of Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Maldives, really built a European Union sort of arrangement?

Now by inviting leaders of BIMSTEC countries—Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan (and additionally Kyrgyzstan and Mauritius)—to his second inauguration as prime minister, as opposed to only SAARC leaders who were invited to his first in 2014, prime minister Narendra Modi maybe signalling a shift in India’s diplomatic gaze. This is not new, but might be a stark hint nonetheless.

The question is what does this mean for South Asian regionalism?

For understanding regionalism, the European Union (EU) is still held as perhaps the best example. It ended conflict in a region that not only gave the world the world wars but also many others including the infamous The Thirty Years’ War.

But increasingly questions have been asked if the EU model is really the best model to follow in other parts of the world.

Upfront in this essay, I would like to acknowledge an immense intellectual debt to Kate Sullivan de Estrada, my professor in international relations at Oxford, whose tremendous scholarship in this area this essay heavily draws from. Much of the ideas of this essay comes from classes that I took under her tutelage.

If the matrix of success is economic and political integration on the lines of the EU, which means a common currency, centralised economic planning and visa system, then this kind of integration seems unlikely in South Asia in the near future.

But as the scholar Amitava Acharya has argued, this EU-centrism misses the crucial point that there is a fundamental difference between the ambition of regionalism in the West, more specifically in the EU, and regionalism in the non-West.

As Acharya has argued: “The EEC was basically conceived as a project to tame nationalism and constrain state sovereignty; non-Western regionalisms were inspired by exactly the opposite motivations, to advance nationalism and preserve sovereignty after centuries of colonial rule. This genetic variation explained and continues to explain why the EU model has failed to find much resonance in the non-Western world.”

This basic difference is aggravated by the fact that unlike in Western regional configurations, there are contested borders in South Asia, especially in the relationship that has often been blamed for the failure of South Asian cooperation – conflict between India and Pakistan. SAARC is in limbo now since the last summit in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2014. India pulled out of the 2016 summit in Islamabad after the terror attack on an Indian army position at Uri. After that, there has been a terror attack in February 2019 at Pulwama, and air strikes in Pakistan and India,

Eighteen SAARC summits have been held till date and the nineteenth is awaited. It was agreed in 2005 that Afghanistan would be added as a SAARC member country, which happened in 2007.

It must be noted that, far from being useless, SAARC today has more observers than members. It has eight members and nine countries as observers – Australia, China, EU, Japan, Iran, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea, United States.

In fact, there has been competition to join SAARC. One of areas of disquiet in SAARC has been with China’s inclusion as an observer in 2005 on the recommendation of Pakistan and support from Nepal. This came as a shock to India, and Wikileaks cables from later that year showed that India urged the U.S. to apply for observer status too to balance China, even though it would not publicly suggest it. The U.S. in fact has become an observer in SAARC and is in a sense a counter-balance with India to the China-Pakistan axis. China now wants to become a full member of SAARC but there has been little enthusiasm from the Indian side on this.

But with the action thinning in SAARC, naturally other groupings are taking precedence. There is competition from more effective trans-regional groupings like BIMSTEC and BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal). What has also been made possible is an alternative to intra-regional trade through broader foundations of cooperation and bottom-up regionalism using trade, business and civil society lobbies pushing for better India-Pakistan economic links, and sub-regional arrangements like commercial ‘quadrangles’ (for instance BBNI or the Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, India corridor) and ‘triangles’ (India-Sri Lanka-Maldives, India-Pakistan-Afghanistan) with possible trans-regional linkages to southeast Asia.

Also, South Asia has one of the highest inter-state barriers in the world and there are fears of economic dominance by more powerful states, therefore the issue of granting of preferential market access by small South Asian economies to India becomes more problematic.

While EU-style multilateral agreements haven’t flourished, there has been a proliferation of bilateral trade agreements. For instance, India’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Bhutan (1995), Nepal (1991), Sri Lanka (1998); PTA with Afghanistan (2003), and some of them have some more beneficial than terms of SAFTA (example between Sri Lanka and India), Pakistan’s FTA with China (2006), Malaysia (2007).

Even the South Asia University in New Delhi is an under-appreciated success story.

New formats of regionalism are taking shape in the region, and within Indian foreign policy, and this might unleash new opportunities.

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