Why ASEAN is a success but SAARC is not?

By BYJU'S Exam Prep

Updated on: September 13th, 2023

About ASEAN:

  • The Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN) was established on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand, with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration which is also known as Bangkok Declaration by the Founding Fathers of ASEAN, namely Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.
  • Brunei Darussalam later joined on 7 January 1984, Viet Nam on 28 July 1995, Lao PDR and Myanmar on 23 July 1997, and Cambodia on 30 April 1999 making up the current composition of the ten Member States of ASEAN.
  • ASEAN, having 9 per cent of world`s population and a GDP of $2.7 trillion, is among the world`s largest regional intergovernmental organisation. Since its inception, the countries in the region are becoming more integrated through intra-regional trade and connectivity. 


Source: ASEAN UP

About SAARC:

  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the signing of the SAARC Charter in Dhaka on 8 December 1985.SAARC is the grouping of 8 countries from South-Asia namely India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Maldives.  The Secretariat of the SAARC was set up in Kathmandu on 17 January 1987.
  • When SAARC was established in 1985, it had similar goals as ASEAN but it failed to deliver. Its failure can be attributed to the conundrum of the regional political atmosphere and historical mistrust which is not waning down even in current times.


Source: India Today

ASEAN had acted as a forum which has provided a fillip to regional integration and economic development which has not happened in case of SAARC. Various reasons for this contrasting nature of Success are as follows:

  • Seamless connectivity among the ASEAN countries has been one of the major factors behind the integration of the region and boost of the intra-regional trade. Waving entry requirements, promoting the region as a tourist destination are some of the steps taken. On the other hand, SAARC`s lackadaisical attitude towards developing the connectivity infrastructure and removing other bottlenecks that hampers the people-to-people connectivity has been at the root of the problem in its integration. For example, the visa exemption scheme of SAARC exempts only a handful of entities, belonging to 24 categories such as sportsmen, businessmen, parliamentarians, judges among others, to be exempted from the visa requirements.
  • ASEAN has always shown its ability to resolve disputes swiftly and without any major bilateral-tensions. The North-Borneo dispute between Philippines and Malaysia and claims over south china sea are such instances where the members have mitigated the problem through the peaceful mechanism. While in case of SAARC, political conflicts, deep mistrust, the ever-going military tensions between India-Pakistan has toppled the regional stability aspirations. The Kashmir issue has been stretched for decades with no visible signs of reconciliation in near future.
  • ASEAN has shown rapid growth in its trade. Both intra-regional trade and investment are very high as compared to other regional groupings and stand at 25 per cent and 20 per cent respectively. While SAARC members` trade stands at just 3.6 per cent. Even the South-Asia FTA did not take off as expected. The Motor Vehicle Agreement between BBIN – Bhutan Bangladesh India and Nepal stalled too.
  • The Security issues in the SAARC countries are far more complex and serious than the ASEAN countries. For example, the insurgency in north-east India, Jaish-e-Mohammad and other terrorist organisations in Pakistan, Taliban in Afghanistan etc. The political leadership in these countries have to divert a lot of resources and time towards tackling these issue which impedes the intra-regional growth. Due to these security reasons the trade route between India and Pakistan, Pakistan ad Afghanistan are very few.
  • ASEAN was pushed by the US for its better coordination and integration in the initial phases which was not provided in case of SAARC.

What this holds for India.

  • India is a member of SAARC and is closely associated with ASEAN through ASEAN+6, ASEAN+8, and other bilateral trade dealings. So, it has to bear the implications of SAARC`s failure and it tries to gain as much from the trade and connectivity with ASEAN countries.
  • SAARC could have been a platform for resolving the India Pakistan issue but it failed to do so.
  • Furthermore, most of the countries in SAARC has not much to offer and India being a comparatively large and stable economy has to provide assistance to them. For example, financial assistance to Maldives and Afghanistan for their developmental projects, open border with Nepal, friendship agreement with Bhutan etc. And in recent times the Uri and Pulwama attack has increased the hostilities in the region and as a result intent of New Delhi to support the SAARC is depleting which is evident when India boycotted the 19th SAARC summit.

The above factors have forced India to show more intent to associate itself with ASEAN as compared to SAARC.  This is in tune with New Delhi` Act East Policy and its shift in emphasis towards BIMSTEC. As India`s gaze is towards BIMSTEC, Myanmar and Thailand have become key players for India in it`s South East Asia outreach.

Reasons for India’s intent for close coordination with ASEAN:

  • With the global narrative changing from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific, ASEAN will be the key link for India and Pacific region.
  •  India is aspiring to be the net security provider in the region and counter China`s aggression, so, it has to work closely with the ASEAN members.
  • Further, It is comparatively easy to boost connectivity and trade with the ASEAN countries as compared to the SAARC countries. Steps are already taken in this direction such as Kaladan multi-modal project, India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway etc.
  • ASEAN as a grouping provides a huge economic potential for India. Singapore which is an ASEAN nation is one of the biggest sources of FDI in India. 
  • India and ASEAN share cultural ties of Buddhism from ancient times which are further strengthened in recent times.

The above-mentioned factors make it clear that India has incentives to associate more closely with ASEAN and distance itself from SAARC.

India is one of the most important pillars of SAARC whose presence and active involvement is the primary requirement for the success of the organisation. But how the things are unfolding in the region it wouldn’t be a surprise if SAARC fades into the oblivion. India needs to reignite the SAARC grouping which is more in line with India’s historical, geographical as well as cultural connect and can provide a big push for India’s standing in global affairs.


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