chapter
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Introduction

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is the most important regional economic and political institution binding the countries of South Asia. For a variety of overlapping historical antecedents, the precise delimitation of South Asia as a region is not always clear, but generally incorporates the contiguous geographic boundaries extending from modern-day Afghanistan through Myanmar (Burma), including the countries based in the Indian subcontinent. SAARC was formally founded in 1985 when the heads of state of seven countries in South Asia (namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) held an inaugural summit in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Since its inception, SAARC has served as an important forum for institutional links among South Asian countries. At the time of SAARC’s creation, though, South Asia was experiencing a great deal of turmoil. For instance, India was beset by a host of challenging internal security issues in the Punjab and along its northeastern provinces, an area of traditional ethnic unrest. Pakistan was a front-line state in a covert war in Afghanistan on account of the Soviet Union’s invasion of that country. Likewise, Sri Lanka’s civil war was getting underway. In light of these circumstances, the creation of a regional institution to enhance multilateral cooperation was seen as a welcome antidote to the internal realities then facing these countries. Despite the gradual emergence of South Asia as an important focal

point for global economic activity, SAARC has not attracted a great deal of scholarly interest. Moreover, much of the extant work has not reached an audience beyond South Asia, primarily because there has been a tendency toward insularity among scholars writing about South Asia and its institutions. The existing insularity of the study of SAARC divorces it from the study of other international organizations. In addition, this type of intellectual insularity has had a dampening effect on the development of comparative research designs that would invariably

highlight lessons that other institutions may have for overcoming the inevitable structural obstacles that are present in all multilateral institutions. As a result, there is very little solid academic work comparing SAARC to other similar regional institutions. For instance, there are merely a handful of books which discuss SAARC’s relations with the European Union (EU), while others draw some comparisons vis-à-vis the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), largely focusing on issues of regional integration.1 There is, rather surprisingly, almost no scholarly work comparing SAARC with the African Union (AU), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or the Mercado Común del Sur (MERCOSUR).2