From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : SAARC and BIMSTEC
Mains level : Paper 2- Indian-SAARC relations
To counter a hegemon, showing a united front helps. Drawing on this maxim, India has to work on improving its standing in the region. And reviving SAARC could be a right step in this direction. So, why SAARC is in hibernation in the first place? Where India could start? Read to know…
China challenging India’s interests in the region
- China, as part of its global expansionism, is chipping away at India’s interests in South Asia.
- China’s proximity to Pakistan is well known.
- Nepal is moving closer to China for ideational and material reasons.
- China is wooing Bangladesh by offering tariff exemption to 97% of Bangladeshi products.
- China has intensified its ties with Sri Lanka through massive investments.
- According to a Brookings India study, most South Asian nations are now largely dependent on China for imports despite geographical proximity to India.
SAARC-Caught in India-Pakistan rivalry
- India’s strategic dealing with China has to begin with South Asia.
- In this regard, it is important to reinvigorate SAARC, which has been in the doldrums since 2014.
- In the last few years, due to increasing animosity with Pakistan, India’s political interest in SAARC dipped significantly.
- India has been trying hard to isolate Pakistan internationally for its role in promoting terrorism in India.
BIMSTEC cannot be an alternative to SAARC
- India started investing in other regional instruments, such as BIMSTEC, as an alternative to SAARC.
- However, BIMSTEC cannot replace SAARC for reasons such as lack of a common identity and history among all BIMSTEC members.
- BIMSTEC’s focus is on the Bay of Bengal region, thus making it an inappropriate forum to engage all South Asian nations.
Economic integration-way to revive SAARC
- One way to infuse life in SAARC is to revive the process of South Asian economic integration.
- South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world.
- Intra-regional trade is at barely 5% of total South Asian trade
- Intra-regional trade is 25% of intra-regional trade in the ASEAN region.
- The lack of political will and trust deficit has prevented any meaningful movement.
- According to the World Bank, trade in South Asia stands at $23 billion of an estimated value of $67 billion.
- India should take the lead and work with its neighbours to slash the tariff and non-tariff barriers.
- There’s a need to resuscitate the negotiations on a SAARC investment treaty, pending since 2007.
- According to the UNCTAD intra-ASEAN investments constitute around 19% of the total investments in the region.
- The SAARC region can likewise benefit from higher intra-SAARC investment flows.
- Deeper regional economic integration will create greater interdependence with India acquiring the central role.
- Which, in turn, would serve India’s strategic interests too.
Two domestic challenges
- 1) There has been an unrelenting top-dressing of anti-Pakistan rhetoric and Islamophobia on the Indian soil.
- There’s also a recurrent use of the ‘Bangladeshi migrant’ rhetoric.
- It dents India’s soft power of being a liberal and secular democracy, which gives moral legitimacy to India’s leadership in the region.
- This divisive domestic politics fuels an anti-India sentiment in India’s neighbourhood.
- 2) The economic vision of the government remains convoluted.
- It’s unclear what the slogans of atma nirbharta (self-reliance) and ‘vocal for local’ mean.
- If this marks sliding back to protectionism, one is unsure if India will be interested in deepening South Asian economic integration.
Consider the question “Examine the issues that hinder the SAARC from realising its full potential as a regional grouping.”
Prime Minister did well by reaching out to SAARC leaders earlier this year, but such flash in the pan moments won’t help without sustained engagement.