Is SAARC Dead?
It is indeed disappointing that South Asia remains the least integrated region of the world. Whereas economic opportunities abound, interstate tensions are working to stymie realization of the potential. No wonder intra-regional trade in South Asia continues to be less than 5 percent.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which was established in 1985 has almost lost all effectiveness. So much so that the organization is now finding it difficult to convene even working-level meetings, let alone foreign minister and summit-level conclaves. The 18th summit was held almost ten years ago in Katmandu. The 19th summit, which was to be hosted by Pakistan in 2016, has become hostage to Pakistan-India rivalry. As things are, prospects remain slim for the near future.
The eight-member organization was conceived to be apolitical where member states were expected to not raise bilateral issues. Even that could not help. While member states have by and large adhered to this practice, SAARC could not escape the negative impact of stressful developments in bilateral relations, especially between India and Pakistan. For instance, the immediate reason for India’s decision to not attend the 19th Summit was the Uri attack in September 2016 in which 19 Indian security forces were killed. India accused Pakistan for the attack. Though the latter offered bilateral/international investigations into the attack, India refused to acquiesce.
It may be mentioned that the bilateral anti-terrorism mechanism that was established in 2006 has also become dysfunctional after a couple of meetings when bilateral engagement came to a halt after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Rather than making such mechanisms more effective and responsive to handle any untoward situations, the deep mutual mistrust has been driving their bilateral relations, also ineluctably impeding meaningful and irreversible regional economic cooperation.
Evolving global dynamics also inevitably affect South Asia. As US and China are vying for influence around the world, SAARC members are looking for opportunities to turn this to their respective economic advantage.
In fact, in the wake of the February 2019 Pulwama attack that killed 40 Indian Central Reserve Police Forces, India took the most drastic action by imposing 200 percent tariffs on imports from Pakistan. That decision put the 2004 South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) in disarray. And when India abrogated the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August the same year, Pakistan retaliated by suspending bilateral trade altogether.
It is also worthwhile to recall that initiatives toward regional connectivity have not been able to come to fruition. Two important proposed SAARC agreements on Motor Vehicle and Railways being negotiated for over a decade now are waiting to see the light of day. India wants land route access to Afghanistan through Pakistan. However, Pakistan has serious and genuine security concerns. In a hostile environment, any possible incident in Pakistan involving Indian vehicles plying through Pakistan would lead to more tensions instead of improving the bilateral environment. If the past is any guide, regional cooperation cannot be built on the rickety foundations of unpredictable bilateral relations.
India seems to have given up on SAARC. Perhaps, so has Pakistan. New Delhi is currently pursuing sub-regional initiatives, namely, BIMSTCH (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) whose members are Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The other is BBIN Initiative with Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal as its members.
At the same time India is also investing in the 7,200 km long International North-South Transport Corridor with multimode network of ship, rail, and road routes for moving freight between India, Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia and Europe. Iran’s Chabahar port is an important part of this initiative which will link Central Asia through Afghanistan, also a SAARC member. Interestingly, India is of late sending its humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan through Chabahar port rather than through the shortest route, that is, the Attari-Wagah border.
Similarly Pakistan, knowing that relations with India are somewhat an intractable variable, is also more focused on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as well as exploring trade and economic possibilities with Central Asia through Afghanistan. Pakistan would also like to see the 10-member Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) more active and result-oriented. However, the fact that its secretariat is in Tehran has contributed to its ineffectiveness.
As Iran is possibly pummelled by more Western sanctions for its burgeoning military ties with Russia, as well as for its direct or indirect role in the ongoing war in Gaza, the ECO will likely remain anaemic. It is time for the ECO to start considering shifting its headquarters to any other capital, preferably Central Asia.
Evolving global dynamics also inevitably affect South Asia. As US and China are vying for influence around the world, SAARC members are looking for opportunities to turn this to their respective economic advantage, which will in turn create more intra-SAARC fissures. The Maldives under its new elected President is now openly asking India to withdraw its 88 military personnel from the archipelago by March 15 this year. Similarly, Bhutan is seeking to establish diplomatic relations with China which New Delhi will certainly not like to see happening.
In short, an economically integrated South Asia may remain a dream for years to come. The road is strewn with many hurdles. India and Pakistan can help SAARC, provided they are ready to sort out their bilateral issues, because conflict-free bilateral relations are fundamental to the success of regional organizations.
- Abdul Basit is President, Margalla International Relations Institute, Islamabad. He was previously Pakistan's ambassador to Germany and Pakistan High Commissioner for India. Twitter: @abasitpak1