A new regional association for South Asia -- which convened at Dacca, Bangladesh, recently -- represents an important step forward in diplomatic ties among the seven member nations. For too long now, South Asia has been one of the few key parts of the global community without a formal economic and diplomatic association. Although the organization, called the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, is considered nonpolitical in its orientation and consideration of issues, in fact the panel cannot help having a moderating influence on many of the bitter rivalries and national conflicts that have marked the area since 1947, when the British pulled backed from the Indian subcontinent. The members of the new group are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bhutan, and Nepal. Together, these nations h ave more than 1 billion people, one-fifth of the world's population.
The key to the success of the association, of course, remains the attitude of India regarding regional cooperation. India, by itself, has twice the population of the six other nations combined. It has the largest economy, the most powerful military apparatus, and the most important international diplomatic ties with other nations, particularly the United States and the Soviet Union, both of which have important economic and military interests in the region.
At present, Indian support for regional association is firm under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who has proved himself eager to improve India's global diplomatic ties in general. The degree to which that enthusiasm would continue under another, somewhat less moderate Indian government remains more questionable, however, since India and Pakistan continue to have sharp differences over the respective roles of the two nations in South Asian affairs.
Nor is the Indo-Pakistani conflict the only big regional rivalry. India and Sri Lanka have had key differences, as have India and Bangladesh.
Precisely because of such rivalries, the new association must be considered a remarkable venture. The mere fact that the leaders of the seven nations got together in private recently, including a boat trip on the Bay of Bengal, provides a new impetus for regional cooperation on economic and cultural matters. Foreign ministers from the seven nations now plan to meet on a regional basis twice a year. And there will be a formal summit meeting of the seven heads of government at least once a year.
The regional group deserves the support and encouragement of the world community.