From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : SAARC, BIMSTEC and regional organisations
Mains level : Bilateralism, regionalism and India's approach towards SAARC and BIMSTEC
- December 8 is commemorated as SAARC Charter Day. It was on this day, 37 years ago, that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), an intergovernmental organization, was established.
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What is SAARC?
- Establishment: The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the signing of the SAARC Charter in Dhaka on 8 December 1985.
- Members: It is an intergovernmental organization, was established by Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka Afghanistan acceded to SAARC later.
- Secretariat: The Secretariat of the Association was set up in Kathmandu on 17 January 1987.
- Objectives: The objectives as outlined in the SAARC Charter are, to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life; to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potentials; to promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of south Asia.
What SAARC has achieved?
- SAARC has failed abjectly in accomplishing most of its objectives.
- South Asia continues to be an extremely poor and least integrated region in the world.
- The intraregional trade and investment in South Asia are very low when compared to other regions such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Sub-Saharan Africa.
- Pakistan has adopted an obstructionist attitude within SAARC by repeatedly blocking several vital initiatives such as the motor vehicles agreement, aimed at bolstering regional connectivity.
- Deepening hostility between India and Pakistan has made matters worse. Since 2014, no SAARC summit has taken place leaving the organisation rudderless, and practically dead.
But why to bother about SAARC?
- South Asia is important for India’s national interest: Because South Asia, that is India’s neighbourhood, is important for India’s national interests. This is best captured in the current government’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy.
- SAARC, a pan south Asia reach: SAARC is the only intergovernmental organisation with a pan-South Asia reach. India can judiciously employ it to serve its interests in the entire region.
- Weakened SAARC means heightened instability: A weakened SAARC also means heightened instability in other promising regional institutions such as the South Asian University (SAU), which is critical to buttressing India’s soft power in the region.
Bilateralism or regionalism, which one is best for India?
- Bilateralism can complement, not substitute regional efforts: A new narrative is that in South Asia, India can successfully use the instrument of bilateralism over regionalism to pursue its interests. While bilateralism is undoubtedly important, it can at best complement, not substitute, regional or multilateral efforts.
- Regionalism in East Asia and Africa: Regionalism has brought immense success in other parts such as East Asia and Africa. Regionalism can deliver prosperity in the South Asian region too, especially because multilateralism is weakening.
- concept of new regional economic order: Looking at ASEAN’s spectacular success in regional integration, international lawyers Julien Chaisse and Pasha L. Hsieh have developed the concept of a new regional economic order, a process through which developing countries search for a trade-development model, based on incrementalism and flexibility; this is different from the neoliberal model laid down by the Washington Consensus.
What is BIMSTEC?
- Regional organization of seven members lying in or adjacent to BOB: The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a regional organization comprising seven Member States lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constituting a contiguous regional unity.
- Establishment: This sub-regional organization came into being on 6 June 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration.
- Act as a bridge between South and South East Asia: The regional group constitutes a bridge between South and South East Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations among these countries.
- Provides Inter regional cooperation platforms: BIMSTEC has also established a platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN members.
Did you Know?
- BIMSTEC comprises five South Asian nations (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka) and two ASEAN countries (Myanmar and Thailand).
- Pakistan is NOT a BIMSTEC member.
Importance of BIMSTEC for India
- India shifted its diplomatic energy from SAARC to BIMSTEC: In recent years, India seems to have moved its diplomatic energy away from SAARC to BIMSTEC. This resulted in BIMSTEC, after 25 years, finally adopting its Charter earlier this year.
- BIMSTEC is better than SAAC charter: The BIMSTEC Charter is significantly better than the SAARC Charter. For instance, unlike the SAARC Charter, Article 6 of the BIMSTEC Charter talks about the ‘Admission of new members’ to the group. This paves the way for the admission of countries such as the Maldives.
- However no flexible formula like ‘ASEAN Minus X’: Notwithstanding the improvements, the BIMSTEC Charter, to boost economic integration, does not contain the flexible participation scheme of the kind present in the ASEAN Charter. This flexible scheme, also known as the ‘ASEAN Minus X’ formula, allows two or more ASEAN members to initiate negotiations for economic commitments. Thus, no country enjoys veto power to thwart economic integration between willing countries.
- Obstructionist attitude of Pakistan within SAARC: Given the experience of SAARC, where Pakistan routinely vetoes several regional integration initiatives, it is surprising that BIMSTEC does not contain such a flexible participation scheme. A flexible ‘BIMSTEC Minus X’ formula might have allowed India and Bangladesh or India and Thailand to conduct their ongoing bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations under the broader BIMSTEC umbrella. This would have eventually strengthened BIMSTEC by enabling the gradual and incremental expansion of these binding commitments to other members. India should press for this amendment in the BIMSTEC Charter.
Some steps to take
- BIMSTEC should not end up as another SAARC: For this, its member countries should raise the stakes. A high-quality FTA offering deep economic integration, something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi also advocated at the last BIMSTEC ministerial meeting would be an ideal step.
- India should try make the organizations flexible to ensure peace and prosperity in the region: Likewise, India should explore legal ways to move successful SAARC institutions such as SAU to BIMSTEC. These steps will give stronger roots to BIMSTEC and enable erecting a new South Asian regional order based on incrementalism and flexibility, ushering in prosperity and peace in the region.
- Since South Asia cannot repudiate regionalism, reviving SAARC by infusing political energy into it and updating its dated Charter will be an ideal way forward. However, in the current scenario, this is too idealistic. So, the next best scenario is to look at other regional instruments such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
Q. India seems to have shifted its diplomatic energies away from SAARC to BIMSTEC in recent years. What are the reasons for doing so?
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