The South Asian Dilemma


Setting the Context: Straying Away but Staying Along

The South Asian region holds a highly potent geostrategic quotient covering around a third of the world’s population. Initially, the region was considered an outlier in the international strategic equation. However, this argument does not hold any water after the shift of the pivot to Asia. The advent of the 21st century with its accompanying trends of globalization, IT revolution, and interdependency coupled with the rise of China and India as an economic powerhouse have shifted the center of gravity of international politics to the Indo-Pacific region and South Asia has gained renewed significance.

Despite this potential of geostrategic significance, South Asia has never been truly unified. To add fuel to fire, the internal animosities remain a glaring example and it is a bitter reality that states cannot change their neighbors. Initial efforts were made during the Cold war to chalk out a comprehensive plan of regional integration based on equality and equity among the states within the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).However, the dissent within the organization, the rising role of India, and the Indo-Pak imbroglio has exacerbated the enmities among the member nations.

However, alongside SAARC-led integration, there is a nuanced trend of Indian hegemony which is becoming apparent. The failure of the recent SAARC summit which was to be held in Pakistan indicates the increasing Indian influence on the littoral states of the South Asian region which form India’s periphery. The regional politics is a direct reflection of the extra-regional animosities as well. The Sino-Indian rift has generated new coercive mechanisms to attain political, economic and security ends. And within the region, forces are counterbalancing Indian rise, but the scene remains bleak.

Regional Security through SAARC: A Tri-Dimensional Reform Agenda

Three crucial features transform simple confrontations to open warfare: fear, interest, and honor. The prevailing regional environment suggests that any miscalculation o part of the regional actors can transform the region into a new shelterbelt. In this way, SAARC though apparently moribund can still play a crucial role to solve the conflicts and provide avenues of negotiation within the ambit of the regional organization. It requires robust and prudent revamping by shifting its policy priorities into three separate realms.

This set of compartmentalized reform based on three principles will firstly serve as a base to stop the practice by the larger nations who bypass the SAARC resolution mechanisms while stuck in a conflict with other states. Secondly, it will expand the avenues of interaction and negotiation on part of the member states. This method of internalizing dissent was used in the United Nations after the failure of the League of Nations. The power of veto was introduced in the UN so that the great powers would address their interests within the organization. Though, still flawed the process has halted the bypassing practices in the UN. Within SAARC, the veto cannot be introduced however, a compartmentalized mechanism of integrated decisions can be introduced through a phased change.

Regional Stability through a Hegemon: A Structural Analysis

The rise of India as a South Asian strong player has altered the regional dynamics and the balance of power. Its ambitions are not merely regional but extra regional as it seeks to counter the Chinese geopolitical, economic, and military rise through its ‘project of the century’. This India-led process of regionalism is based upon the idea of hegemonic stability. Where India can serve a leading road for the peace, stability, and security of the region whereas, the other states are considered of secondary significance.

To actualize this idea, the major hurdle is Pakistan, a nuclear power. This structural preponderance through which India seeks to deliver stability in the South Asian region is centered on hierarchy and inequality among the states of South Asia. This structure would work under a system of ‘distribution of goodies. Where India will deliver stability within like Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Maldives and the states in return pool their sovereign to the Indian state. This structure of stability though highly controversial but has been a predominant feature in international politics as the US till today has served as a hegemon serving international peace through various international monetary and fiscal regimes until the rise of China. This can be classified in two classes of states, on the top tier is the prospective regional hegemon and on the lower tier remain the peripherical underweights as indicated in the figure. 3.

Regional Policy Direction: A Comparative Analysis

To shape the future of the South Asian region, two models suggest the best explanation of the current scenario and provide a view of how, if applied, these models can create benefits to the regional security. However, both models hold substantial loopholes.

SAARC-led IntegrationIndia-led Hegemony
Collaboration leads to peaceEqualityPreponderance begets peaceHierarchy
Modelsof Stability
Horizontal mechanismSystem of low politics Economic, political, and socio-cultural associationVertical mechanismSystem of high politicsPolitico-economic band-wagoning  
Functional spillovers from economic activities to political integration as exemplified by the EU.A context for negotiation among membersHierarchical spillovers where economic benefits will trickle down in the peripheral states of IndiaThe negotiation table will always be tilted in favor of India. And the states might suffer a nuanced South-South divide
The clout of intangible identities Organizational and regulatory complexitiesUnequal rise of power of India The nuclear capacity of two giant neighbors, India, and PakistanUndermines the sovereignty of the other South Asian states Might financially burden India and if it falters, the vacuum might lead to more turbulence, i.e. rise of non-state actors, populist leaders, etc. Pakistan’s challenging role based on nuclear deterrence China’s increasing collaboration with the South Asian players through BRI

These models in the contemporary security situation of South Asia are not acting in isolation or preponderance of one over the other. Rather, these two are working hand in glove in a state of transitive turbulence. India is pulling the strings of SAARC from behind as suggested by the hegemonic theory and SAARC as internalized India’s expansive and hegemonic role, even if in a passive manner. This calls for an alternate reform model to ensure regional peace and harmony. This is possible by revamping SAARC substantially to inculcate a system of interactive governance. 

Rethinking South Asia: A Multi-Faceted Approach

In SAARC, the state-based rifts between India and Pakistan have retarded the integration process. The political rivalry has hindered the inter-regional trade and obstructs the interdependence which can lead to a customs union or a security community. Of the total trade based in South Asia, only 5% of it is intra-regional. Although the percentage is much higher in the EU at around 50% and the ASEAN+3 at 38-45%.In addition to that, the populist rise in the region provides a leadership role in mobilizing bias. Hence, the Pareto-optimal bargaining or agenda-setting is directed away from integration due to the security dilemma. To set aside this prevailing dilemma, there are three prospective ways to revamp the SAARC-led model of integration to substantially increase collaboration, communication, and integration.

Multi-level Governance: It signifies the tangled structure of authority at multiple levels, both horizontally and vertically. It will bring input from the localities and communities within SAARC member states. It will increase the legitimacy and the implementation mechanism of the organization.

Donor-Driven Governance: This approach to SAARC needs investors as in the case of AIIB for CAREC-2030.This will increase the incentive-based working of SAARC. The donor-driven interest will lead to renewed investment and a shift of focus on the benefits offered by SAARC.

Interactive Governance: This mechanism will focus on diagonal dialogue about the various sectors with the member states of SAARC. It will increase the avenues of connection and investment thus revamping interdependency among the member states.

These three mechanisms to revamp SAARC in this phase of transitive turbulence with the rise of Sino-India rivalry on the extra-regional level and the hegemonic rise of India with Pakistan’s rebuttal in the intra-regional dynamics. This is a comprehensive strategy to make sure that the SAARC-member states do not bypass the SAARC platform in their decision making. For that purpose, incentivizing SAARC membership will attract and align the states. This can be aptly done through regional or international donors as this pivot holds the greatest market and the deepest pitfalls if not handled right.


The South Asian region is known for being the hub diversity, but that question is the effective management of that diversity through pluralism and inclusivity. This paper analyzed two modes which can ensure stability in this hotbox. But the challenges of hegemonic stability are too gruesome that the only option is to collectively reform, reshape and strategize SAARC and its functioning. This can do through donor-led investment incentivizing the new modes of governance within the structure of SARRC.

Rida Fatima
Rida Fatima
Student of Politics and International Relations and a Researcher associated with the Center for Global and Strategic Studies. Areas of Interest: International Political Economy, South Asian Politics, Nationalism and Populism.


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