SAARC and its Revival.

Image Source: India Today

Image Source: India Today

Recent news: The government invited the leaders of neighbouring countries for the second time to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on May 30. In 2014 the invitation went to the leaders of the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), while in 2019 the invitation went to leaders of the seven-member Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). BIMSTEC includes five SAARC members (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka), and Myanmar and Thailand, while leaving SAARC members Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Maldives out, due to the geographical location of the Bay of Bengal.

Relevance: Why SAARC is important; Has SAARC become irrelevant; Why SAARC hasn’t succeded; why BIMSTEC is important; why BIMSTEC has assumed more importance than SAARC; the SCO angle; India-Pakistan and SAARC; how to revive SAARC. 

Practice Question: In relation to India’s neighbourhood foreign policy in the recent times, BIMSTEC has assumed more importance compared to SAARC. Do you agree? Comment. – 250 words.

The importance of SAARC:

SAARC, as an organisation, reflects the South Asian identity of the countries, historically and contemporarily. This is a naturally made geographical identity. Equally, there is a cultural, linguistic, religious and culinary affinity that defines South Asia. Therefore, just as rivers, climatic conditions flow naturally from one South Asian country to the other, so do the films, poetry, humour, entertainment and food. As a result, since 1985 when the SAARC charter was signed, the organisation has developed common cause in several fields: agriculture, education, health, climate change, science and technology, transport and environment. Each area has seen modest but sustainable growth in cooperation. For example, from 2010, when the South Asian University began in Delhi, the number of applicants for about 170 seats has more than doubled.

Why SAARC hasn’t been able to succeed – SAARC’s biggest failure, however, comes from the political sphere, where mainly due to India-Pakistan tensions, heads of state have met only 18 times in 34 years; it has been five years since the last summit in Kathmandu.

The position of BIMSTEC:

BIMSTEC is not moored in the identity of the nations that are members. It is essentially a grouping of countries situated around the Bay of Bengal, and began in 1997 (Bhutan and Nepal joined in 2004), a decade after SAARC. The organisation did not even have a secretariat until 2014. While it has made some progress in technical areas, leaders of BIMSTEC nations have held summits just four times in 22 years. With India’s growing frustration over cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan, it hopes to build more on BIMSTEC’s potential. But the organisation is unlikely to supplant SAARC for a specific reason.

One of BIMSTEC’s two founding principles is: “Cooperation within BIMSTEC will constitute an addition to and not be a substitute for bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation involving the Member States.” Its official literature describes it as “a bridge between South and South East Asia” and a “platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] members.” It is significant that two of the leaders at Mr. Modi’s swearing-in on Thursday — Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena — have also emphasised that BIMSTEC would not replace SAARC.

India-Pakistan relations in light of SAARC and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO):

Issue – It is difficult to reconcile that India refuses to attend the SAARC summit citing reasons of terrorism emanating from Pakistan, however, India does attend the SCO summit where both India and Pakistan are members. 

India’s deep resistance to SAARC is because of terrorism emanating from Pakistan. However, India and Pakistan are members to other well functioning organisations like SCO. Unlike SAARC, which has never presumed to resolve bilateral issues of its members, the SCO is a security-based regional organisation that is keen to work on conflict resolution in the region; it even organises military exercises between members. It is difficult to reconcile the staunch opposition to attending a SAARC summit where India is at least the largest country, with the acquiescence to the SCO, where Russia and China take the lead.

When it comes to bilateral relations, is Pakistan the only problem?

The terrorism emanating from Pakistan and Pakistan’s resistance to development projects is certainly a big issue. However, there are other problems that must not be overlooked. 

Another reason offered by those declaring SAARC becoming defunct is the logjam because of Pakistan’s opposition to connectivity projects such as the Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA), energy sharing proposals and others such as the South Asia Satellite offered by Mr. Modi. However, such agreements have not made progress in other groupings either: the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping has failed to implement the MVA due to opposition from Bhutan, and India has held up for years cross-border power-exchanges that would allow Bhutan and Nepal to freely sell electricity to third countries such as Bangladesh. India has rightfully held Pakistan responsible for holding up the South Asia Free Trade Area agreement and refusing to reciprocate ‘Most Favoured Nation’ (MFN) status to India. After the Pulwama attack this February, India also withdrew MFN status to Pakistan, but New Delhi must admit that in other regional groupings such as the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), it too is accused of stonewalling free trade regimes. In BIMSTEC, one can imagine similar logjams.

What can be a way forward for the revival of SAARC?

Going forward, SAARC could adopt the “ASEAN minus X” formula — members who are unwilling to join the consensus can be allowed to join at a future date, while members who wish to go ahead with connectivity, trade or technology cooperation agreements are not impeded.

There remain other possibilities. In a region increasingly targeted by Chinese investment and loans, SAARC could be a common platform to demand more sustainable alternatives for development, or to oppose trade tariffs together, or to demand better terms for South Asian labour around the world. This potential has not yet been explored, nor will it be till SAARC is allowed to progress naturally and the people of South Asia, who make up a quarter of the world’s population, are enabled to fulfil their destiny together.

Source: The Hindu