Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed snap] The immediate neighbourhoodMains Onlyop-ed snap

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC, Bimstec

Mains level : Bimstec can't be a replacement of SAARC.


CONTEXT

The government has shown its commitment to its strategy of “Neighbourhood First” by inviting the leaders of neighbouring countries for the second time to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on May 30. . The focus will continue this week when he makes his first visit in this tenure to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, something that has become tradition for all Indian Prime Ministers.

Importance of SAARC

South Asian identity – SAARC, as an organisation, reflects the South Asian identity of the countries, historically and contemporarily.

Geographically independent – This is a naturally made geographical identity. Equally, there is a cultural, linguistic, religious and culinary affinity that defines South Asia.

Common concerns –

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.

Modest growth –

  • 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.

Failure of SAARC – 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.

  •  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.
  •  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.

No alternative for SAARC

  • 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.”

India’s SAARC aversion

  •  Terrorism emanating from Pakistan is clearly the biggest stumbling block cited by the government. 
  • This principled stand by India, however, doesn’t extend to other organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
  • 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.
  • 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.

Way Forward

ASEAN minus X – 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.

An alternative to Chinese interference – 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.

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