Amer Kurtović, a Master student at the Department, posits that South Asia is lacking in regional cooperation and integration, which can be ofset through joint action through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and that the only element of a cooperation typology that is lacking is leaders' political will.
The European Coal and Steel Community, a direct predecessor to today’s European Union, was formed in 1952. Several key events and phenomena took place to spark the creation of that Community: recovering (and, thus, weak) economies, a foreign actor that supported regional integration, a foreign actor that posed a threat to the states involved, different but complementary interests, and domestic political will.
Fast forward 40 years and the European Union is formed, a successor to the ECSC once removed, and fast forward another 25 years and that Union is the largest, most successful, and most deeply integrated such project in the history of mankind. A testament to the EU’s success is its many less successful (and less ambitious) copy cats throughout the world: the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, Mercosur, etc.
The idea of regional integration, first in technical matter and then in substantive matters, changed a continent in which competition (the bad kind) was the norm into one where interstate cooperation and collaboration (the good kind) is the norm. Although the European project hit a speed bump not too long ago, it is as unlikely to stop moving forward as is a car which slows down at a speed bump to avoid destroying its transmission.
The conditions which existed in 1952 and which led Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands to start integrating and another 22 countries to join them along the way partly exist today in another part of the world 7,000 kilometers away: South Asia. South Asia, which consists of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, has a GDP of around three trillion USD and which is growing by 7% annually; has a population of 1.8 billion people or a quarter of the world’s total; and some of the world’s most potent militaries.
Even though the eight countries’ combined GDP is large, it is smaller than the federal budget of the United States by $800 billion but 25% of the world’s population, meaning that its GDP per capita is paltry at less than $2,000.
There has been no major international actor that has explicitly supported regional integration in South Asia, but it is not hard to phantom such support coming from either or both the European Union and the United States or regional integration happening without as strong support as the United States provided Europe in the early 1950s.
Much like the Soviet Union posed a threat to European capitalist democracies at the beginning of regional integration, China is posing a threat to Indian influence and others’ (namely Pakistan’s and Sri Lanka’s) economic (and, potentially later, political) independence.
All countries in the region should have a vested interest in cooperating to increase economic growth (which is almost certain to occur after trade liberalization), while Afghanistan should have a specific interest in consolidating democracy and increasing living standards for its people; Bangladesh in establishing fair(er) labor laws and social policies; Bhutan and Nepal in drawing tourists from the region and ensuring equal environmental policies to prevent negative spillover; India and Pakistan in decreasing bilateral tensions; India in securing support in possible confrontations with other countries; and the Maldives and Sri Lanka in gaining a competitive advantage as ports of transit for ships in the Indian Ocean.
The only possibly missing condition is domestic political will, which in 2018 is indeed hard to come by; however, this need not be the case if politicians themselves aptly recognize regional integration as an element of the solution to their woes (both collective and individual) and articulate their countries’ and people’s interest in integrating with their neighbors.
In hindsight, the Doklam Crisis between India and China could’ve and should’ve driven India to push for more regional integration with its neighbors, either under the auspices of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation or independently thereof; however, it was not. There are myriad reasons for this, but this mistake needn’t be permanent. The same structural issues exist in South Asia as in Europe in 1952 – only agency of individual leaders is missing. Just like it’s missing today, it doesn’t have to be missing tomorrow as well.
South Asia ought to cooperate and integrate in order to prevent another Doklam Crisis, to increase economic growth in the region, to decrease poverty for all people in all countries in the region, to preserve the region’s environment, and to increase its clout in international politics. Otherwise, South Asia will continue to lag behind its more advanced neighbors (i.e. China and ASEAN), be vulnerable to outside threats, and, quite frankly, remain one of the poorest regions.
Although regional integration doesn’t need to take the form of an organization that existed since 1985, has established cooperation among eight member-states in areas such as agriculture, disaster management, forestry, meteorology, and tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and has six apex bodies, including ones for accountants, authors, and exporters, but why shouldn’t it?
About Amer Kurtović: Amer Kurtović hold a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and European Studies from International Burch University and is currently working toward a Master’s degree in EU integration. His primary research interests include the European Union, the Western Balkans, and discourse theory and analysis while his secondary research interests include the Middle East and political Islam.