Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] The fadeout and a revival of SAARC

After lying moribund for years, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has suddenly acquired a new lease of life, SAARC conference highlighted urgency of regional approach to coronavirus as well as familiar difficulties of getting there.
By IASToppers
March 21, 2020

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Background
  • What is current scenario of SAARC?
  • India and SAARC
  • The decline of SAARC
  • Alternative of SAARC
  • Suggestions
  • Way forward

The fadeout and a revival of SAARC

For IASToppers’ Editorial Simplified Archive, click here

Introduction:

Recent engagement of India with the leaders of South Asian nations on collectively combating the coronavirus marks a long-overdue course correction in India’s regional diplomacy. At the same time, the conversation among the leaders also highlighted the unique national problems that the countries confronted. This is the time to unite with regional cooperation for the SAARC countries.

Background:

  • SAARC was born at a moment of hope in the 1980s; the idea was initiated by General Zia Ur Rehman of Bangladesh, who met many of the other leaders personally and dispatched special envoys to the capitals of the countries of the region.
  • In the nearly 35 years of its existence, however that SAARC has, to put it euphemistically, not lived up to the promise of its founder.

What is current scenario of SAARC?

  • After the deadly terror attack on the Indian security forces at Uri in 2016, India refused to engage with the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation).
  • While smaller countries in the region acknowledged Delhi’s deepening concerns on cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan, they were also despondent that the main forum for regional cooperation in South Asia had moved from a state of dysfunction to deep coma.
  • Many of them were willing to work with India in alternative forums like the BIMSTEC, centred around the Bay of Bengal, but were not prepared to abandon the SAARC.

India and SAARC:

  • India is the most important country in South Asia, and India was the progenitor of the idea of a primarily economic grouping of countries of South Asia.
  • Admittedly, SAARC has been on ‘life-support’ for much of the period, but had begun to display a new vigor and dynamism recently.
  • India had also shown a willingness to adopt an asymmetrical and non-reciprocal approach towards other SAARC members which had gone down well with these countries.
  • To undermine SAARC due to the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan may well be an instance of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’.
  • India’s proposals for an emergency relief fund to deal with the crisis, sharing India’s capabilities with the neighbours and developing a new regional research platform.

The Decline of SAARC:

  • Most of the smaller states and external players believe that the India-Pakistan conflict has undermined SAARC.
  • Bilateral issues cannot be discussed in SAARC but since the organisation relies on the principle of unanimity for all major decisions.
  • Pakistan has often undermined even the most laudable initiative lest it give India an advantage: relative gains by India are more important for Pakistan than the absolute gains it secures for itself.
  • For India, Pakistan’s use of terror as an instrument of foreign policy has made normal business impossible.

Alternative of SAARC:

  • Another aspect of India’s neighbourhood first policy in recent years has been to build the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), as an alternative grouping to SAARC.
  • India has been actively promoting and strengthening BIMSTEC in several areas, including Indian Ocean regional security and counterterrorism. But a realisation has been gradually dawning on Indian policymakers that there are limits in this respect.
  • Chinese closeness:
  • Not only are Thailand and Myanmar economically and strategically closer to China, but Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh also have extensive economic engagement with China and are struggling to work out balancing strategies between India and China. Some of them did not hesitate to politely bring in China.
  • The China factor is all too predominant here, with almost every country (other than India) under China’s influence, having been wooed with financial and other inducements.
  • China is hoping to further consolidate its position through its One Belt, One Road initiative which has been warmly welcomed by all these countries, the sole exception again being India.
  • India’s other smaller neighbours have also been very cautious on regional integration proposals as they have not been able to figure out as to how close is not too close to India. The slow movement in the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) sub regional initiative may be recalled here.
  • Propping up bodies such as BCIM (The Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar Economic Corridor) in place of SAARC is hardly the answer, and could even prove counterproductive

Suggestions:

  • India cannot afford to not to harvest this opportunity, after having sowed the seeds of a New South Asia.
  • The leaders of SAARC have to agree on not only to pool their best practices, share their experiences and coordinate their efforts to work together to solve regional issues with a view to its long-term economic and social consequences.
  • The assertive expression of India’s new willingness to stabilise the region through cooperative mechanisms being distracted by short-sighted disingenuous ploys of a troubled Pakistan or being put off by its grandstanding.
  • The revival of SAARC will also facilitate India’s neighbourhood policy in meeting the challenge of regional strategic encroachment by China through its Belt and Road Initiative.

Way forward:

The tragedy of COVID-19 may provide an opportunity for India to demonstrate its compassionate face to secure a region at peace with itself. This is a moment thus of a rare opportunity for India to establish its firm imprimatur over the region; and to secure an abiding partnership for SAARC countries shared destiny.

The success of the India-SAARC initiative will largely depend on India. Once India demonstrates that it has the capacity, the political willingness to institutionalise and to lead a mutually beneficial cooperative regime in the region.

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