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Reclaiming SAARC from the ashes of 2020

CONTEXT:

Evidence of SAARC’s perilous position came on the SAARC charter day on December 8, where PM Modi made it clear that India’s position on cross-border terrorism is still in place. In 2016, it had led New Delhi to refuse to attend the SAARC summit in Islamabad.

SAARC meeting cannot be convened unless all leaders agree to meet, is unlikely to do so in the near future.

                       India-Pakistan tension: Is there a role for SAARC? | ORF

BACKGROUND:

Thirty-six years after it first began, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), appears to be all but dead in the water.

The year 2020 marked the sixth year since the leaders of the eight nations that make up SAARC were able to meet.

THE SHADOWS OVER THE MEETS:

Fragmented than a collective South Asia:

  • Over the past year, India-Pakistan issues have impacted other meetings of SAARC as well.
  • It makes easier for member countries, as well as international agencies to deal with South Asia as a fragmented group rather than a collective.
  • They work with each country in separate silos or in smaller configurations.

Corana and Chinese impact:  However, following two events of 2020, shone a new spotlight on this mechanism, and should make the Modi government review its position and reverse that trend.

  • Novel coronavirus pandemic and
  • China’s aggressions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC)

Pakistan’s ‘veto’ over entire SAARC process: India’s problems with Pakistan on

  1. Terrorism,
  2. Territorial claims and
  3. Role in blocking SAARC initiatives on connectivity and trade are well known.
  • Even so, India’s refusal to allow Pakistan to host the SAARC summit because of those problems is akin to giving Pakistan a ‘veto’ over the entire SAARC process.

SAARC(PAKISTAN) V. SCO(CHINA) PUZZLE:

1. Indo-Pak in SCO: The insistence is particularly puzzling given that Modi Govt. continued to attend SCO meetings along with their Pakistani counterparts

  • including the SCO Heads of Government meeting in November where New Delhi even invited Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan (he deputed another official).

2. Indo-China in group meet: While China’s incursions in Ladakh and the Galwan killings constituted the larger concern in the year, India did not decline to attend meetings with the Chinese leadership at

  • SCO,
  • RUSSIA-INDIA-CHINA (RIC) TRILATERAL
  • G-20 AND OTHERS.

3. Indo-Nepal:  No concern stopped the Modi government from engaging with Nepal either, despite

  • Territorial claims by Nepal
  • Oli’s decision to change Nepal’s map and Constitution to include Indian territories

SAARC IS CRUCIAL FOR SOUTH ASIAN COMMON CHALLENGES:

Handling Pandemic: Reviving SAARC is crucial to countering the common challenges brought about by the pandemic.

  • South Asia’s experience of the pandemic has been unique from other regions of the world.
  • Such an approach is also necessary for the distribution and further trials needed for vaccines, as well as developing cold storage chains for the vast market that South Asia represents.

Impact on South Asian economies:  The pandemic’s impact on South Asian economies is another area that calls for coordination.

  • GDP slowdown,
  • Global Job Cuts- Estimated 22% fall in revenue for migrant labour and expatriates from South Asian countries  
  • Tourism sector:  Expected loss of about 10.77 million jobs and US$52.32 billion in GDP  

SAFTA as India’s Only RTAs:   As the world is divided between regional trade arrangements such as   USMCA (North America),

  • Southern Common Market, or MERCOSUR for its Spanish initials (South America),
  • European Union (Europe),
  • African Continental Free Trade Area, or AfcFTA (Africa),
  • Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC (Gulf) and
  • Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership
  • India’s only regional trading agreement at present is the South Asian Free Trade Area, or SAFTA (with SAARC countries).

A TIME FOR REGIONAL INITIATIVES:

“All-of” South Asia approach: In the longer term, there will be a shift in priorities towards an “all-of” South Asia approach that will also benefit from

  • Health security
  • Food security, and
  • Job security

The impact of COVID-19:

  • A growing distaste for ‘globalisation’ of
    • Trade,
    • Travel and
    • Migration
  • A growing preference for
    • Nativism,
    • Self-dependence and
    • Localising supply chains.

Regional initiatives as “Goldilocks option”: While it will be impossible for countries to cut themselves off from the global market entirely,

  • Regional initiatives will become the “Goldilocks option” (not too hot and not too cold), or the happy medium between globalisation and hyper-nationalism.

CHINA CHALLENGE IN SAARC:

In dealing with the challenge from China too, both at India’s borders and in its neighbourhood, a unified South Asian platform remains India’s most potent countermeasure.

Significantly, from 2005-14, China actually wanted to join SAARC.

Member status from observer status: Officials recall that every SAARC summit during that decade period saw a discussion on whether China could be upgraded to member status (from observer status).

China is not South Asian: On each occasion, it was fought back by India and most other countries in the grouping, with the logic that despite sharing boundaries with three South Asian countries, China is not South Asian.

China push to South Asia: Despite the rebuff, China has continued to push its way into South Asia, as several statistical indicators for

  • Investment,
  • Trade,
  • Tourism and
  • South asian student preferences for universities

“Health Silk Road” initiative: China used the opportunities presented by the pandemic to push ahead with this quest.

  • Apart from sending medicines, personal protective equipment kits, and promising vaccines to most SAARC countries as part of its “Health Silk Road” initiative.

New Block of SAARC countries (minus India and Bhutan): Experts suggest that it is only a matter of time before Beijing holds a meeting of all SAARC countries (minus India and Bhutan), for they are all part of the BRI, and even that they will be invited to join RCEP, which India declined.

WAY FORWARD:

Health and Economic Diplomacy: In contrast, India stepped up its health and economic diplomacy in the region, but apart from one SAARC meeting convened by Mr. Modi in March, these have been bilateral initiatives, not a combined effort for South Asia.

Multilateral summits to go online in Corona Pandemic: Corona Pandemic has forced most multilateral summits to go online, it is inexplicable that India cannot attend a virtual SAARC summit hosted by Pakistan, which would allow the South Asian process to move forward.

World Bank reports: It estimated the losses have all suggested that South Asian countries work as a collective to set standards for labour from the region, and also to promoting a more intra-regional, transnational approach towards tourism, citing successful examples including the ‘East Africa Single Joint Visa’ system, or similar joint tourism initiatives like in the Mekong region or the Caribbean islands.

CONCLUSION:

History and political grievances Vs geography is reality:  Despite the despondency, the rationale for its existence remains intact: while history and political grievances may be perceived differently, geography is reality.

Beijing’s prism: Seen through Beijing’s prism, India’s SAARC neighbourhood may be a means to contain India, with the People’s Liberation Army strategies against India over the LAC at present, or in conjunction with Pakistan or Nepal at other disputed fronts in the future.

New Delhi’s own Prism: New Delhi must find its own prism with which to view its South Asian neighbourhood as it should be:

  • A unit that has a common future, and as a force-multiplier for India’s ambitions on the global stage.

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC):

Establishment:  with the signing of the SAARC Charter in Dhaka on 8 December 1985.

Idea: First raised in November 1980.

HQ: Kathmandu, Nepal.

Newest member: Afghanistan at the 13th annual summit in 2005.

International Institutions] - SAARC-South Asian Association For Regional  Cooperation | IAS Abhiyan

Members:

  1. Afghanistan
  2. Bangladesh
  3. Bhutan
  4. India
  5. Maldives
  6. Nepal
  7. Pakistan
  8. Sri Lanka

Principles: Principles of

  • Sovereign equality,
  • Territorial integrity,
  • Political independence,
  • Non-interference

Source: The Hindu