Globalisation has coincided with the almost equally pervasive economic phenomenon of new regionalism. Since the mid-1980s, various groups of countries, both developed and developing, both contiguous and straddling across oceans and continents, have come together to establish free trade areas and enter into comprehensive economic partnerships as stepping stones towards forging economic union.

The new regionalism has virtually become the norm rather than an exception to the international trading system. Countries not able to participate in the current wave of regionalism are destined to experience discrimination in the world trading system and remain excluded from numerous benefits that flow from free trade areas or comprehensive economic partnership agreements.

South Asia, unfortunately, constitutes one of the regions where progress towards regional economic integration is nominal. SAFTA was the single most important step designed to enable the South Asian countries to move towards regional economic integration, but it is widely recognised that SAFTA suffers from basic flaws. Besides, its scope is very limited.

A major problem encountered in achieving regional economic integration is to ensure that all participating countries, at different levels of development, benefit equitably from the fruits of regional economic cooperation. Five out of the eight SAARC member nations fall in the category of Least Developed Countries (LDCs). It is essential to design regional cooperation and integration measures in such a manner so as to ensure that an equitable share of the benefits accrues to these countries. SACEPS is going to place special emphasis on programmes and projects intended to facilitate the adoption of suitable measures to ensure this outcome.

Given the obstacles embedded in history and geopolitics, there is an obvious need to be ambitious about regional cooperation and economic partnerships in South Asia. It is possible because there are mutual interests underlying the logic of collective action. Some essential steps in this direction may include efforts for enhanced connectivity from Central Asia to South Asia and further to ASEAN. This may help not only in expansion of trade, transport and investment linkages but may also boost tourism.

The idea is to come up with analytical studies identifying ways to promote and facilitate expansion of economic and political linkages for better infrastructure and reduce barriers restricting economic transactions between South Asian countries. In doing so, it is important to ensure that the Least Developed Countries benefit at least as much as the other larger, more developed countries of the region. The logic of cooperation extends beyond the region to the international context. It could be about developing common positions in multilateral negotiations. It could be about evolving a common stance on the rights of migrant workers in the Middle East. It could also be about a common approach to strategic integration with Asia that has significantly increased its share in world output, manufacturing and trade.

The phenomenal increase in the shares of the Asian countries in global output and exports provide the South Asian countries an unprecedented opportunity to maintain the dynamism recently displayed by their economies and accelerate growth where it has been sluggish in the recent years. They can do this best by first linking their own economies and then moving towards Pan-Asian integration collectively.

The private sector has been playing an important role in the development of economies of the region. It has, therefore, a great stake in success at liberalisation and expansion of markets of South Asian countries. The private sector is naturally interested in extracting maximum advantage from the opportunity for expanded trade and investment flows opened up through the implementation of policies and measures for regional economic cooperation.

South Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to the impact of climate change devastation of natural disasters. Regional cooperation in this area can go a long distance towards dealing with the consequences of the problems of climate change and natural disasters.

As developing economies, South Asian countries face the problem of ensuring food security and energy security for their people. Given the rising demand in growing economies and the pressure of growing population, there are both existential and looming shortages in the areas of both food and energy. There is, however, good prospect for ensuring food and energy security through mutual cooperation if the existing complementarities and potential for expansion in production are adequately harnessed.

All the South Asian countries face problems of inequality and exclusion of large sections of population from the process of development. No society committed to eradicating poverty and to basic human rights and social justice can afford to ignore these problems. Besides, inclusive growth, equality and justice within are essential pre-conditions for pursuing the objective of regional integration. SACEPS has already made a major contribution in this area through its study and advocacy work, on eradication of poverty through the empowerment of the poor, and through the process of the preparation of Citizens Regional and National Social Charters. Continuation and intensification of this work will remain a priority task for SACEPS in the years ahead.

SACEPS was established as the only think-tank of South Asia to bring together the outcome of the research done by scholars and institutions in the region, it undertakes collaborative research of its own on a highly selective basis and carry out advocacy activities with policymakers, intellectuals and civil society organisations. Since its inception, SACEPS has built a network, it has not lost any of its validity or relevance. During this period, SACEPS has built a network of some of the best research institutions in the region. It has made its presence felt with its numerous policy studies, recommendations, publications and advocacy meetings organised to carry forward the process of regional integration. As a part of this endeavour, SACEPS has been putting forward recommendations to the official process of regional cooperation, especially during the SAARC Summits. It has also taken steps to facilitate the implementation of important decisions taken at the SAARC Summit Conferences.

The idea of the South Asia Economic Summit originated from SACEPS and its partner institutions have undertaken in rotation the responsibility of organising these summits. Its Board Members have made significant substantive contributions at these Summit Conferences. Eight South Asia Economic Summit Conferences have so far been held. Each of these Conferences has made extensive recommendations on the whole gamut of issues relating to economic development and regional cooperation.

In carrying out its activities, SACEPS has benefitted immensely from its well established partner institutions and its Board Members who are held in high esteem and exercise extensive and important political, academic and professional influence in the region. Several of the Board Members were included in the Eminent Persons Group which in its Report in 1996 developed the vision for the South Asian countries to move towards an economic union.