Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Why the SAARC meeting was cancelled

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC

Mains level : Success and failures of SAARC

A meeting of foreign ministers from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, which was set to be held in New York has been cancelled.

About SAARC

  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is the regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of states in South Asia.
  • Its member states are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
  • The SAARC comprises 3% of the world’s area, 21% of the world’s population and 4.21% (US$3.67 trillion) of the global economy, as of 2019.
  • The SAARC was founded in Dhaka on 8 December 1985. Its secretariat is based in Kathmandu, Nepal.
  • The organization promotes development of economic and regional integration. It launched the South Asian Free Trade Area in 2006.
  • The SAARC maintains permanent diplomatic relations at the United Nations as an observer and has developed links with multilateral entities, including the European Union.

Formation of SAARC

  • After the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the security situation in South Asia rapidly deteriorated. In response, the foreign ministers of the initial seven members met in Colombo in 1981.
  • At the meeting, Bangladesh proposed forming a regional association that would meet to discuss matters such as security and trade.
  • While most of the countries present were in favour of the proposal, India and Pakistan were sceptical.
  • Eventually, both countries relented and in 1983 in Dhaka, joined the other five nations in signing the Declaration.

What has SAARC done so far

  • Despite its lofty ambitions, SAARC has not become a regional association in the mould of the European Union or the African Union.
  • Its member states are plagued by internal divisions, most notably the conflict between India and Pakistan.
  • This in turn has hampered its ability to form comprehensive trade agreements or to meaningfully collaborate on areas such as security, energy and infrastructure.
  • The 18th and last SAARC summit was held in 2014 with Pakistan scheduled to host the 19th summit in 2016.
  • Many nations pulled out of the summit, citing fears of regional insecurity caused by Pakistan and a lack of a conducive environment for the talks.

Limited success to count

  • Despite these setbacks, SAARC has achieved a modicum of success.
  • It has provided a platform for representatives from member countries to meet and discuss important issues, something that may have been challenging through bilateral discussions.
  • India and Pakistan for example would struggle to publicly justify a meeting when tensions between the two are particularly high, but representatives from both countries could come together under the banner of SAARC.
  • The bloc has also made some headway in signing agreements related to climate change, food security and combatting the Covid-19 crisis.
  • It has the potential to do far more but that is contingent upon cooperation on key issues between member states.

Why was the recent meet cancelled?

Ans. Pakistan’s insistence to include the Taliban

  • The member states are unable to agree upon the participation of Afghanistan, with Pakistan and India in particular at loggerheads over the issue.
  • After Pakistan objected to the participation of any official from the previous Ghani administration, SAARC members reportedly agreed to keep an “empty chair” as a symbolic representation of Afghanistan.
  • However, Islamabad later insisted that the Taliban be allowed to send its representative to the summit, a notion that all of the other member states rejected.
  • After no consensus could be formed, Nepal, the ‘host’ of the summit, officially cancelled the meeting.

Why did countries object?

Ans. Taliban is not a legitimate govt

  • The Taliban has not been recognised as the official government of Afghanistan by any SAARC countries barring Pakistan.
  • Several top Taliban leaders are blacklisted by the US and/or designated as international terrorists.
  • Senior leaders who are not blacklisted are known for supporting terrorist activities or affiliating with terrorist organisations.
  • Allowing Taliban to represent Afghanistan in SAARC would legitimise the group and serve as a formal recognition of their right to govern.
  • Apart from Pakistan, which has close ties to the Taliban, particularly its violent subgroup, the Haqqani Network, none of the other SAARC members recognise the Taliban.

Why nations should not recognize the Taliban?

  • PM Modi has referred to the Taliban as a non-inclusive government, warning other nations to think before accepting the regime in Afghanistan.
  • SAARC members are deeply aware of the threat of spillover terrorism from Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, with Bangladesh in particular, concerned with the effect it may have on extremism.
  • Developments in Afghanistan could lead to uncontrolled flow of drugs, illegal weapons and human trafficking.

Conclusion

  • With Pakistan headfast in its support for the Taliban and the rest of SAARC weary to acknowledge the group, any future summit is unlikely until the issue has been resolved.
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