Evolution of Regional and Sub-Regional Cooperation in South Asia

 By Mohak Gambhir

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)

The first substantial initiative for regional cooperation in South Asia was taken by Bangladesh President General Ziaur Rahman in 1980 when he proposed a regional organisation to foster economic, social and cultural development.[1] Following consultations with the countries in the regional neighborhood, The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established in 1985 with the signing of the SAARC Charter in Dhaka, and today it comprises of eight member states: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

A cautious India which preferred to engage in bilateral diplomacy over multi-lateral engagement had to be put at ease about some of its reservations regarding the true objectives of the organisation, mainly the belief that the smaller states might join forces to challenge India’s primacy in the region. Thus, two key points were added to the SAARC charter – first, all decisions were to be taken unanimously and second, all bilateral and contentious issues will be kept out of the SAARC agenda.[2] Ironically, these factors later proved to be the biggest hurdles, for SAARC and India, in making significant advance in economic and physical connectivity and other potential areas of cooperation.

Though soon after, India began to embrace SAARC as it realised the limitations of bilateral relations and the need for regional cooperation to continue its economic progress and look for broader economic opportunities in the region. India took a leaf from the Gujral Doctrine of making unilateral concessions to neighboring states to bolster India’s image as a regional power as well as a pragmatic leader. In fact, India in 2007 defined its approach to the region as that of asymmetric responsibility.[3]

Sub-Regionalism within SAARC

The history of initiatives for sub-regional cooperation in South Asia goes back to 1996. India and other smaller member states sharing borders with India started exploring avenues of cooperation available as a result of their shared land borders. The idea of a South Asian Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ) comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) was mooted under the ambit of Article 7 of the SAARC charter which allows for action committees to be set up “comprising of Member States concerned with the implementation of projects involving more than two but not all member states”.[4] However SAGQ could not fructify due to opposition from countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives who felt that this sub-regional initiative undermined the ethos of regional cooperation. Member states like Bangladesh and Nepal faced opposition against the initiative from domestic stakeholders like Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the United Marxist and Leninist Party respectively.

Following that, the BBIN countries approached the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to improve economic cooperation in South Asia. This led to the creation of South Asian Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) program in 2001 which brings together Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka, with Pakistan being an exception, with an aim to “promote regional prosperity, improve economic opportunities, and build a better quality of life for the people of the sub-region”.[5] The SASEC program has been far more successful than SAARC in achieving the objectives of economic integration, trade facilitation and energy security. As of October 2019, SASEC member countries have successfully implemented 55 ADB financed investment projects worth more than US$ 12.5 billion across transport, trade facilitation, energy and economic corridor development.[6] In 2016, the SASEC countries approved the strategic 10 year roadmap, the ‘SASEC Operation Plan 2016-2025’ to expand the program’s focus beyond intra-regional cooperation to developing linkages with Southeast and East Asia, thereby widening the scope of transport, trade facilitation, and energy cooperation

Sub-Regionalism Outside SAARC

The 18th SAARC Summit (2014) marked an important turning point for subregional cooperation in South Asia. The newly appointed PM Modi of India did not mince words as he pointed out the discouraging track record of SAARC in terms of promoting economic integration, while also highlighting the significant infrastructural connectivity among the member states.

The Kathmandu declaration in November 2014 reiterated the need for intensifying regional cooperation in trade, infrastructure, connectivity and finance among others. Soon after, the BBIN states, Bangladesh – Bhutan – India – Nepal, signed a Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) in 2015 for the regulation of passenger, personnel and cargo vehicular traffic among the four South Asian neighbors.[7] The scope of the BBIN initiative saw expansion at the second Joint Working Group (JWG) meeting held in Jan 2015, where it covered areas of cooperation in Water Resources Management and Power/Hydropower in addition to sub-regional connectivity.

The MVA saw no progress for a couple of years post 2016 as no JWG meetings took place among the member states. The Bhutanese government could not ratify the proposal for approving the MVA in the upper house of its parliament. However, it did gain traction once again as the rest three member states ratified the agreements in their countries and agreed upon the text of the operating procedures for the MVA in 2018.

In Feb 2020, BBIN states met to deliberate upon a proposed MoU for implementation of MVA.[8] While there have been some hurdles, as with any multi-lateral initiative, the BBIN provides interesting opportunities to the member states to make up for the ‘achievements deficit’ faced by SAARC.

Regional Organisations Beyond SAARC

Other regional organisations like the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) includes some of the other regional players left out of the BBIN initiative like Maldives and Sri Lanka. BIMSTEC, for instance, includes BBIN states, Sri Lanka as well as two Southeast Asian states – Myanmar and Thailand. Similarly, IORA comprises a total of 22 states connected by the Indian Ocean, including India, Sri Lanka and Maldives. Both these organisations provide an opportunity to most of the South Asian states to explore opportunities beyond those offered by SAARC, the traditional platform for multi-lateral cooperation in the region. In addition, these organisations do not suffer from the India-Pakistan bilateral tensions that have often held back SAARC and therefore are much more consistent in their conduct and cooperative initiatives.


India’s pivotal location in South Asia and the size of its economy and population positions India to play a leading role in the region’s development. The bilateral arrangements can only go so far in terms of what they can yield for India and its ambitions, both regional and global. India’s pursuit to successfully accelerate its economic growth by integrating better with its neighbours, better connectivity for its northeastern states with the rest of the country and improve connectivity with Southeast Asian countries will play a critical role in cementing its image as a regional and global power.

While the traditional and more important areas of cooperation like trade, economy, security etc. should be pursued at whatever platforms possible, India should not abandon SAARC completely. There are a host of areas of common benefits for all countries which they can agree upon and take necessary steps to improve the lives of the people in the region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared unilateral initiatives at the 18th SAARC summit. These included business visa for 3-5 years through a SAARC Business Traveller Card, additional funds for setting up a Regional Supra Reference Laboratory for TB and HIV, launching a SAARC satellite for weather forecast and disaster response and relief are some of the areas where a unanimous consensus can be reached. Measures like quick visa for SAARC patients for medical treatment are also one of the many ways where cooperation can take place.[9]

Such measures would help further India’s soft power reach in the region and the world. This would not only keep SAARC from becoming a total failure which would also reflect poorly on India’s leadership abilities, but also help cooperation under various regional and sub-regional organisations. India should continue to make unilateral concessions where it can and find ways to strike a balance between SAARC and other regional organisations to complement their respective initiatives. As it seeks to develop its economy and society at large, India would find it in interest to take the region along in pursuit of those objectives.



[1] SAARC, Press Release, SAARC charter day (Kathmandu: SAARC,2014) Available on the internet at: http://saarc-sec.org/press_release/details/saarc-charter-day

[2] SAARC, SAARC Charter (Kathmandu: SAARC) Available on the internet at: http://www.saarc-sec.org/SAARC-Charter/5/

[3] Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Public Diplomacy, Brief on SAARC (New Delhi: MEA, 2011)  Available on the internet at: https://mea.gov.in/in-focus-article.htm?18785/Brief+on+SAARC

[4] SAARC, SAARC Charter (Kathmandu: SAARC) Available on the internet at: http://www.saarc-sec.org/SAARC-Charter/5/

[5] SASEC, What is SASEC (Manila: 2020) Available on the internet at: https://www.sasec.asia/index.php?page=what-is-sasec

[6] Ibid

[7] Press Information Bureau (PIB), Press Release, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement for the Regulation of Passenger, Personal and Cargo Vehicular Traffic amongst BBIN (New Delhi: PIB,2015) Available on the internet at: https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=122417

[8] Anirban Bhaumik, India, Bangladesh, Nepal move to facilitate vehicle movement within three nations, leaving aside Bhutan, Deccan Herald, Feb 08, 2020. Available on the internet at: https://www.deccanherald.com/national/india-bangladesh-nepal-move-to-facilitate-vehicle-movement-within-three-nations-leaving-aside-bhutan-802915.html

[9] Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Speech and Statements, Prime Minister’s speech at the 18th SAARC Summit (New Delhi: MEA, 2014) Available on the internet at:https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/24321/Prime+Ministers+speech+at+the+18th+SAARC+Summit