UPSC MAINS 2019: SAARC AND ASEAN comparison (why SAARC is not successful)

SAARC AND ASEAN comparison


Topic: SAARC AND ASEAN comparison (why SAARC is not successful)

Topic in Syllabus: GS Paper 2 : India and its Neighbourhood


SAARC AND ASEAN comparison


With the changes of international situation new forms of international co-operation are taking place. To become more cohesive and to take part in the process of enhancing welfare many regions are uniting together. The Association of South East Asian Nations and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to compare their achievements and success as regional institutions. The process of unification, political and economic has gone much further in Southeast Asia than South Asia. South Asian Association for regional Co-operation has had a shorter history than Association of Southeast Asian Nations. From the inception in 1967 ASEAN has made a very substantial progress which provides a strong contrast to SAARC.


South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC):

  • SAARC was founded in Dhaka on 8 December 1985. Its secretariat is based in Kathmandu, Nepal.
  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is the regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of nations in South Asia.
  • Its member states include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
  • SAARC comprises 3% of the world’s area, 21% of the world’s population and 3.8% (US$2.9 trillion) of the global economy, as of 2015.
  • The organization promotes development of economic and regional integration. It launched the South Asian Free Trade Area in 2006.
  • SAARC maintains permanent diplomatic relations at the United Nations as an observer and has developed links with multilateral entities, including the European Union.


Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN):

  • Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a regional intergovernmental organisation comprising ten Southeast Asian countries which promotes Pan-Asianism and intergovernmental cooperation and facilitates economic, political, security, military, educational and socio-cultural integration amongst its members and other Asian countries.
  • Since its formation on 8 August 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, the organisation’s membership has expanded to include Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
  • Its principal aims include accelerating economic growth, social progress, and sociocultural evolution among its members, alongside the protection of regional stability and the provision of a mechanism for member countries to resolve differences peacefully.
  • ASEAN is an official United Nations Observer, as well as an active global partner
  • ASEAN covers a land area of 4.4 million square kilometers, 3% of the total land area of Earth.
  • If ASEAN were a single entity, it would rank as the sixth largest economy in the world, behind the United States, China, Japan, France and Germany.
  • ASEAN shares land borders with India, China, Bangladesh, East Timor and Papua New Guinea, and maritime borders with India, China, Palau and Australia.


ASEAN and SAARC: A Comparative Inquiry:

  • Determination to secure peace, stability, prosperity and social development:
    • ASEAN has clearly stepped ahead in this regard. They properly identified that mentality to “considering something as one’s own” is a vital question in forming consensus. In this context, ASEAN has perceive that though the member states are more busy with their internal problems
    • ASEAN has conceived world’s powers will come forward only then by observing economic prosperity, and considering as their economic co-partner in greater regional and global issues
    • SAARC has failed to reach in such consensus because of their internal mutual rivalry. Recent border conflict in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh has not indicated any positive sign for this region.
    • From January, 2009, ASEAN countries appointed their envoy in Jakarta. The decision has taken for more powerful secretariat and sufficient monetary resources. They take into consideration for free movement of ASEAN secretariat. Such kind of decisions prove that how much they eager to achieve their goal. On the other hand SAARC does not ensure any consensus upon that rather they believe Westphalia model of absolute sovereignty.
  • Establishment of different initiatives of real programme:
    • ASEAN has capable to enhance sufficient political good will in regional and international level. To achieve this goal, the programme has taken into account in this regard; empowerment, enhance people awareness, effectiveness of law enforcement agencies, encouragement of environment related programme and alongside prevent illegal destitute of tree and business. They have reaffirmed their determination to enhance co-operation with other international organization in regard of relief and evil day’s management.
    • In SAARC circumference does not appear such kind of arrangement. Even though there are several bilateral effort are seen, till now there are no amalgamated consensus came out for this region.
  • Keeping harmony with their development agenda:
    • ASEAN has prioritized in giving preference over education. It has done by in order to avail the fruition of globalization, sharpening the intellectual and expertise of its own citizen and speeding up of regional competition.
    • SAARC in this subject without discussing a little bit there is no remarkable progress. Establishing campus in different countries programme run with very slowly.
  • Coordination between members countries:
    • ASEAN countries have clearly ahead a lot. They have done it because of their comparative unity. They stand such a point where they thing about appointment of their assistant dialogue envoy. Consequently it may help to spill over their cooperation in other area.
    • In a result, ASEAN enable to centralize their attention with more effectively and importantly. Fuel and food security, terrorism and inter-border crime, poverty reduction, sustainable forest management and climate change, infection disease, relief and evil days management and such other crucial issues.
    • In SAARC bilateral discussion totally prohibited and bilateral discussion appear as a dead lock among SAARC countries because of unwillingness of Indian hegemonic mentality. India have border relation except Maldives and Sri Lanka and almost every country want to solve border problem bilaterally but Indian wants to control the region rather cooperation.
  • Food security:
    • ASEAN think that sufficient primary food and authentic supply, stability of price is a prerequisite of establishment of socio- economic peace and stability.
    • ASEAN insist on removing subsidy from export and preservation policy rather open competitive market for food export.
    • This is also effective for SAARC if it take proper initiatives in regard of fuel expertness and preservation for development of greater cooperation with in the region. For the purpose of poverty reduction, establishment of SAARC development fund may be efficacious, if its execution is not too late.
    • The main reason behind the failure of SAARC is that lack of political unity and inter-state auspicious. Therefore sensitive issues are not discussed in SAARC or cannot take initiatives for solution.
  • Balance of politico-economic and military interests of member states:
    • SAARC has not been able to maintain a balance of politico-economic and military interests of member states. The most powerful entities of the association had different alignment with former world powers and collapse one of them put the situation greater uncertainty to the balance of power which became more dangerous with formal nuclearization of an India and Pakistan but ASEAN has declared nuclear free zone.
    • In ASEAN, consensus approach may facilitate security cooperation. Such a process of “stressing the positives” and sweeping controversial issues under the carpet” may create enough goodwill among the participants as to encourage restrained political and military behavior.


Why SAARC is not successful:

It can be asserted that much of the SAARC’s failures are rooted in a variety of reasons which are listed below.

The SAARC Charter:

  • The Charter of the SAARC established the objectives of the organization; on the day of its establishment. A careful analysis of these objectives reveals that almost all the objectives concentrated on promoting cooperation among members but this cooperation was primarily concentrating in cultural, economic and social sectors.
  • Promotion of self-reliance was mentioned but not institutionalized. The objectives appear to be catchy but are, practically, hard to achieve and even harder to operationalize particularly in the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust among the members.

Internal Threat:

  • SAARC, as stated before, was a wholly indigenous project and not initiated by a foreign power. It was also not caused by the menace of an outside hegemonic power. However, the bitter reality is that the hegemon is not outside the SAARC but inside it. India is the largest member of SAARC and dominates the South Asian region due to its size and population. It borders nearly every landed member except for Afghanistan and is the nearest to the island members of Sri Lanka and Maldives.
  • This makes India the local hegemon or the “core state” in the words of Barry Buzan. India has used its power to forward its hegemonic designs often at the expense of the SAARC. The recent postponement of the Islamabad SAARC conference through Indian machinations is an example of how SAARC has paid the price for Indian ambitions.

Indo Pak Inertia:

  • While SAARC has survived the various Indo-Pak crises it has not escaped the ill effects of the enmity between its two largest states. The tensions between the two leading powers of South Asia have caused great damage to SAARC, often stunting its growth and development.
  • The lingering Kashmir dispute has become a great obstacle in its path to progress as complications arising from Indo-Pak tensions tend to have a negative impact on the organization. Other issues like Sir Creek and Indo-Pak mistrust often hamper efforts for greater regional integration.

Focus on Socio-Economic Development:

  • SAARC was developed as a platform with a deep focus on socio-economic development. All contentions and bilateral issues between member states are not discussed in the SAARC. Its share in the global GDP is less than 3 per cent. The poor trade performance of SAARC stands in marked contrast with that of the neighboring regional alliance.
  • The incapability of SAARC to provide a platform for conflict resolution has become its greatest weakness. As low politics is a domain exclusive to the SAARC, it is often held hostage by high politics which in turn weakens its performance.

Lack of Connectivity:

  • The lack of connectivity among member states is another weakness of the SAARC. This ties in with the lack of a proper infrastructure of member states. This infrastructure deficit in turn leads to reduced connectivity among the SAARC nations. South Asia needs to invest up to $2.5 trillion to bridge its infrastructure gap over the next ten years, says a 2014 World Bank report. Women, the poor, and marginalized social groups are particularly affected by the region’s infrastructure gap.

Agreements and Conventions:

  • Almost all the agreements and conventions, adopted and signed by SAARC members, are concentrating on promotion of economic and social interactions and relations. There is hardly any significant development, under the banner of SAARC, to promote mutual trust and resolve mutual disputes. Dispute resolving has been, unfortunately, left out of the scope of SAARC.
  • Even “SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism” was nothing but ratification and implementation of the UN resolutions and conventions

SAARC Bodies:

  • Almost all SAARC bodies and subsidiary bodies and offices are working in the social fields. Political fields and enhancement of trust and promotion of cooperation in political fields have been left out of the focus unfortunately.

Mutual Conflicts of Members:

  • Most of the members have several conflicts with each other. Any act of cooperation and interaction is seen suspiciously by almost all the members. In this scenario of trust deficit, one must not forget the central position of India, “India is both literally and otherwise central to South Asia”


  • The SAARC faces internal political problems within the region. It does not have a spared view of what constitutes threat to the region. The security systems of India and Pakistan target each other. That is why the SAARC has been less effective.


Why ASEAN is successful:

  • ASEAN has achieved the good level of peace and prosperity without going to war, as the Europeans did. At the same time there is no other region on Planet Earth that is so diverse. You have 600 million people, of which 214 million are Muslim, 110 million are Christian, 150 million are Buddhist…even within the Buddhists you have Mahayana and Hinayana sects, then have Taoists, Confucionists, Hindus, Communists, there is such amazing diversity.
  • When it was born in 1967, South East Asia was by far the most troubled place on earth. There were more bombs dropped in Indo-China (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) than all of Europe in World War II. And we overcame all that and created a community that is today so peaceful.
  • ASEAN countries have diverse views on many things. Take for example, the Israel-Palestine issue. Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, but Singapore has a very close relationship with Israel. Between U.S. and China, I would say there is a spectrum of views. Some like Cambodia maybe more pro-China, Vietnam is more pro-America. But at the same time Vietnam’s number one trading partner is China. In 1979, the border between China and Vietnam had one million soldiers on each side confronting each other. Today, they are gone. So all ASEAN countries have different positions on US and China, but they make efforts for good relations with both.
  • ASEAN-India relationship is not just 25 years, it’s a few thousand years old, and it is important that the leaders draw from the deep well of history to build ties. Nine out of the ten ASEAN countries, all except Vietnam, have an Indian cultural base. Even when the Philippines, a 90% Catholic country hosted the East Asian summit in November last year, it opened with a Ramayana performance. Most Indians are so ignorant and unaware of these links however. The second thing to push for is more flights between ASEAN and Indian countries, to facilitate people to people exchanges.
  • If ASEAN were a single country, it would already be the seventh-largest economy in the world, with a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion in 2013. It is projected to rank as the fourth-largest economy by 2050.
  • Labor-force expansion and productivity improvements drive GDP growth—and ASEAN is making impressive strides in both areas. Home to more than 600 million people, it has a larger population than the European Union or North America.
  • ASEAN has the third-largest labor force in the world, behind China and India; its youthful population is producing a demographic dividend. Perhaps most important, almost 60 percent of total growth since 1990 has come from productivity gains, as sectors such as manufacturing, retail, telecommunications, and transportation grow more efficient.
  • ASEAN is a diverse group. Indonesia represents almost 40 percent of the region’s economic output and is a member of the G20, while Myanmar, emerging from decades of isolation, is still a frontier market working to build its institutions. GDP per capita in Singapore.
  • ASEAN has dramatically outpaced the rest of the world on growth in GDP per capita since the late 1970s. Income growth has remained strong since 2000, with average annual real gains of more than 5 percent. Some member nations have grown at a torrid pace.
  • Already some 67 million households in ASEAN states are part of the “consuming class,” with incomes exceeding the level at which they can begin to make significant discretionary purchases (Exhibit 2).3 That number could almost double to 125 million households by 2025, making ASEAN a pivotal consumer market of the future.
  • ASEAN is the fourth-largest exporting region in the world, trailing only the European Union, North America, and China/Hong Kong. It accounts for 7 percent of global exports—and as its member states have developed more sophisticated manufacturing capabilities, their exports have diversified.
  • ASEAN consumers are increasingly moving online, with mobile penetration of 110 percent and Internet penetration of 25 percent across the region. Its member states make up the world’s second-largest community of Facebook users, behind only the United States.
  • Intraregional trade in goods—along with other types of cross-border flows—is likely to increase with implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community integration plan, which aims to allow the freer movement of goods, services, skilled labor, and capital.



The one big lesson from ASEAN is that having regular meetings makes a huge difference to trust levels. I attended the initial ASEAN meetings with five countries in 1971, and the level of distrust was very high. Twenty years of meetings later, there was a world of difference. SAARC should consciously study ASEAN and build a habit of regular meetings at all levels. ASEAN has 1000 meetings a year on all kinds of issues. Health, infections, pandemics, are a common problem, for example. SAARC must build on these common areas.


 Sample Question:

How important is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to improving ASEAN-India trade ties, especially given the Indian government’s misgivings on the free trade agreement?