Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations



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).

Mains Question

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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Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations



From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA)

Mains level : Paper 2- Opportunities and challenges for BIMSTEC


After 25 years, BIMSTEC can do much better as a grouping, addressing shortcomings in trade and connectivity.


  • BIST-EC in 1997: The 1997 Bangkok Declaration led to creation of the grouping of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand with the acronym, BIST-EC.
  • BIMSTEC: Three countries-Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar joined BIST-EC later to make it the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
  • At the grouping’s birth, the world was different; it was stamped by America’s ‘unipolar moment’.
  • India and Thailand joined hands to start an experiment of infusing a part of South Asia with the economic and institutional dynamism that defined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
  • But BIMSTEC found the burdens of South Asia too heavy to carry, and so it grew slowly.
  • The grouping has succeeded in rejuvenating itself.
  • Instrument of regional cooperation and integration: Since its Kathmandu summit in 2018, it is viewed as an instrument of regional cooperation and integration, not just of sub-regional cooperation.

New opportunities in the changed geopolitical context

  • In the third decade of the 21st century, the strategic contestation between the United States and China defines the region’s geopolitics and geo-economics, creating new tensions and opportunities.
  • Deepening linkage between South Asia and Southeast Asia: In this Indo-Pacific century, the Bay of Bengal Community (BOBC) has the potential to play a pivotal role, deepening linkages between South Asia and Southeast Asia.
  • Collaboration with IPEF: It should accelerate the region’s economic development by collaborating with the newly minted Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF).
  • New synergy should be created between BIMSTEC and the IPEF.
  • While all member-states are equal, three have a special responsibility: Bangladesh as the host of the BIMSTEC Secretariat; Thailand as the representative of Southeast Asia; and India as the largest state in South Asia.

Key achievements of BIMSTEC

  • Charter: It has crafted a new Charter for itself, spelling out the grouping’s vision, functions of its constituent parts, and has secured a legal personality.
  • Sectors of cooperation reduced to 7:  It has prioritised the sectors of cooperation, reducing them from the unwieldy 14 to the more manageable seven, with each member-state serving as the lead country for the assigned sector.
  • Strengthened Secretariat: It has, finally, taken measures to strengthen the Secretariat.
  • Combating terrorism: The grouping has also registered progress in combating terrorism, forging security cooperation, and creating mechanisms and practices for the better management of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
  • Held regular summits: Unlike the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, post-2014, BIMSTEC has continued to hold its summits and meetings of Foreign Ministers.
  • Unlike the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) which held only one summit since its establishment in 1997, BIMSTEC has succeeded in holding five summits so far; it has now resolved to hold regular summits once in two years.
  • Sectoral cooperation: Institutions such as an Energy Centre and the Centre on Weather and Climate are in place to push sectoral cooperation forward.


  • No progress on FTA yet: A major failure relates to the continuing inability to produce a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) 18 years after the signing of the Framework Agreement.
  • Lack of connectivity: The other disappointment is connectivity — in infrastructure (roads, railways, air, river, and coastal shipping links), energy, the digital and financial domain, and institutions that bring people closer together for trade, tourism and cultural exchanges.
  • Only limited progress has been achieved so far, despite the adoption of the Master Plan for Connectivity supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
  • Much of the connectivity established recently is the outcome of bilateral initiatives taken by India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan to strengthen transport links.
  • No progress on Blue Economy: The grouping has talked about the Blue Economy but is yet to begin any work on it.
  • Business chambers and corporate leaders are yet to be engaged fully with the activities of BIMSTEC.


If BIMSTEC is truly committed to its stated goals, it must recreate the spirit of working in unison.

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Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

For a better South Asian neighbourhood


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Buddhist circuit

Mains level : Paper 2- Regional cooperation


Recent developments — in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan — underline the geographic imperative that binds India to its neighbours in the Subcontinent.

Need for intensive regional cooperation for managing the new dangers

  • Working with the logic of geography has become an unavoidable necessity amidst the deepening regional and global crises accentuated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
  • As higher oil and food prices trigger inflation and popular unrest across the region, more intensive regional cooperation is one of the tools for managing the new dangers.

Hope for transcending internal divide between India and Sri Lanka

  • India’s relations with Sri Lanka underline the importance of continuous tending of political geography.
  • Tradition of hosting political exile: India has had a long tradition of hosting political exiles from the region.
  • Whether it was the Dalai Lama from Tibet or Prachanda from Nepal, Delhi has welcomed leaders from the neighbourhood taking shelter in India.
  • Negative consequences: There is a dangerous flip side to this positive tradition in the Subcontinent.
  • India has paid a high price for the decision in the early 1980s to train and arm Sri Lankan Tamil rebels.
  • Hope for transcending internal divide: The current crisis in Sri Lanka raised hopes for transcending the internal ethnic divide in the island nation and rebuilding political confidence between Colombo and Delhi.
  • Material and financial support to Sri Lanka: Delhi’s unstinting support — both material and financial — for Colombo during this unprecedented economic and political crisis has generated much goodwill in Sri Lanka.

Relations with Nepal and role of cultural ties

  • Possibilities in cultural geography: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha in Nepal, highlights the immense possibilities of cultural geography in reshaping the Subcontinent’s regional relations.
  • The idea of a “Buddhist circuit” connecting the various pilgrimage sites across the India-Nepal border has been around for a long time.
  • India and Nepal have come together in developing the Buddhist circuit.
  • Religion and culture are deeply interconnected in South Asia.
  • Developing all religious pilgrimage sites across the region, and improving the transborder access to them could not only improve tourist revenues of all the South Asian nations, but could also have a calming effect on the troubled political relations
  • That China has built a new airport near Lumbini and Modi is avoiding it points to the turbulent triangular dynamic between Delhi, Kathmandu, and Beijing.
  • Revitalising the shared cultural geography inevitably involves better management of economic geography.
  • Infrastructure development on Indian side: The last few years have seen the Indian government step up on infrastructure development on the Indian side and accelerate transborder transport and energy connectivity in the eastern subcontinent.

Recent trends in India-Pakistan relations

  • Cultural ties: Despite their frozen bilateral political relationship, Delhi and Islamabad had agreed to open the Kartarpur corridor at the end of 2019 across their militarised Punjab border.
  • There is much more to be done on reconnecting the Subcontinent’s sacred geographies — including the Ramayana trail and Sufi shrines.
  • While parts of the region are aligning their policies with the geographic imperative, Pakistan would seem to be an exception.
  • Ignoring the geographic imperative: Given the depth of its macro economic crisis and massive inflation, one might have thought Pakistan would want to expand trade ties with India in its own economic interest.
  • But Pakistan’s politics are hard-wired against the logic of geography.
  • Delhi had little reason to believe that Pakistan’s new government can alter its self-defeating policy towards India.
  • But it must continue to bet that the geographic imperative will eventually prevail over Islamabad’s policies.


Realists might want to argue that current trends in the Subcontinent point to India’s growing agency in shaping its neighbourhood and that Pakistan will not forever remain an exception. For Delhi, the policy question is whether India can do something to hasten the inevitable change in Pakistan.

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Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Fulfilling the potential of the Bay of Bengal community


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : BIMSTEC

Mains level : Paper 2- Key takeaways from BIMSTEC Summit


The celebrations to mark the 25th year of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) have been accompanied by the announcement of several new initiatives.

Important outcome of BIMSTEC Summit

The summit had several important outcomes: Expanding the grouping’s agenda, deepening cooperation between the member countries and planning systematically for consistency and coherence.

1] Finalisation of charter

  • The Bay of Bengal Community was launched in 1997. But its charter, finalised last week, was more than two decades in the making.
  • The 20-page document adopted at the fifth BIMSTEC Summit articulates the purpose, principles and legal standing of the organisation.
  • It also delineates the process to admit new members – this requires the consensus of the members.
  •  The emphasis on consensus is important, given the sensitivities of the member countries.
  • One important provision in the charter is to keep regular meetings on track and provide enough scope to the BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee to keep the process energised.

2] Development on connectivity issues

  • Amongst the important decisions is the one related to the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity.
  • The region requires seamless connectivity through multi-modal channels that improve links within and amongst the member countries.
  • These channels should be in sync with the regulatory frameworks of the member countries.
  • There are proposals to extend the trilateral highway project between Thailand, Myanmar and India to Laos and Cambodia. Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal have also evinced interest in the project.
  • Digitisation has enhanced cooperation in customs regulations and facilitated and improved cargo clearance procedures. All this will surely enhance investment linkages and improve regional trade.

3] A systemic approach to streamline the evolution of BIMSTEC.

  • Establishing an Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) for formulating a vision document for the region will help in articulating the aspirations of the collective.
  • EPGs have been quite useful in the EU and ASEAN.
  • For instance, the ASEAN-India Eminent Persons Group (AIEPG) was constituted in 2005 after the Eighth ASEAN-India Summit.
  • Its recommendations still guide the grouping’s work.
  • In 2011, the EU constituted an EPG  to suggest a roadmap to address the challenges arising from the resurgence of intolerance and discrimination in Europe.

4] MoU for legal assistance and mutual cooperation

  • The MoU for legal assistance in criminal matters and additional MoUs for mutual cooperation between diplomatic academics and training institutes would help in creating an ecosystem of deeper knowledge-related cooperation.
  • The technology transfer facility proposed in Colombo is likely to augment these efforts.

India’s leading role

  • India has promised $1 million to set up a Secretariat in Dhaka.
  • India has identified several other areas where it will support the collective.
  • Delhi will provide a $3 million grant to the BIMSTEC Centre for Weather and Climate, promote collaboration between industries and start-ups, and launch programmes that will help in the adoption of international standards and norms.
  • Agricultural trade analysis: Delhi has also suggested a regional value chain based agricultural trade analysis – this will be conducted by the RIS.
  • The Asian Development Bank and the New Delhi-based ICRIER have stewarded awareness programmes on trade facilitating measures in the member countries.
  • Support to Sri Lanka and Nepal: The pandemic has created fresh challenges and aggravated old ones in the countries of the region, particularly Sri Lanka and Nepal.
  • India’s support to these countries, especially in financial matters, could help in reducing undesirable external intervention in the region.

Way forward

  • Need for FTA: The early completion of the regional free trade agreement could provide a fillip to the organisation’s efforts.
  • Promote research on cultural and civilisation linkages: Besides economic links, the Bay of Bengal countries share a cultural and civilisational legacy.
  • The role of institutions like Nalanda University in promoting research on cultural and civilisational linkages and improving the adoption of sustainable practices would be equally significant.


The collective’s fifth summit that concluded in Colombo showcased member nations’ resolve to facilitate connectivity and security and enhance the prosperity of the region.

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Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations



From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : BIMSTEC

Mains level : Paper 2- BIMSTEC -challenges and opportunities ahead


The fifth summit of the regional grouping, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), held virtually in Colombo on March 30, has advanced the cause of regional cooperation and integration.

Colombo package

  • Economic challenges: Representing a fifth of the world’s population that contributes only 4% of the global GDP, can this multilateral grouping trigger accelerated economic development?
  • It was clear that BIMSTEC first needed to strengthen itself — by re-defining its purpose and rejuvenating its organs and institutions.
  • The eventual result is now seen in the package of decisions and agreements announced at the latest summit.

Achievement of Colombo Summit

  • 1] Adoption of Charter: Adopted formally, it presents BIMSTEC as “an inter-governmental organization” with “legal personality.”
  • BIMSTEC’s purposes: Defining BIMSTEC’s purposes, it lists 11 items in the first article.
  • Among them is acceleration of “the economic growth and social progress in the Bay of Bengal region”, and promotion of “multidimensional connectivity”.
  • The grouping now views itself not as a sub-regional organisation but as a regional organisation whose destiny is linked with the area around the Bay of Bengal.
  • 2] Reduction in the sectors of cooperation: The second element is the decision to re-constitute and reduce the number of sectors of cooperation from the unwieldy 14 to a more manageable seven.
  • Each member-state will serve as a lead for a sector: trade, investment and development (Bangladesh); environment and climate change (Bhutan); security, including energy (India); agriculture and food security (Myanmar); people-to-people contacts (Nepal); science, technology and innovation (Sri Lanka), and connectivity (Thailand).
  • 3] Adoption of the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity:  the summit participants adopted the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity applicable for 2018-2028.
  •  It was devised and backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
  • It lists 264 projects entailing a total investment of $126 billion.
  • Projects worth $55 billion are under implementation. BIMSTEC needs to generate additional funding and push for timely implementation of the projects.
  • 4] Signing of three new agreements: Finally, the package also includes three new agreements signed by member states, relating to mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, cooperation between diplomatic academies, and the establishment of a technology transfer facility in Colombo.


  • The pillar of trade, economic and investment cooperation needs greater strengthening and at a faster pace.
  • Absence of FTA: Despite signing a framework agreement for a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2004, BIMSTEC stands far away from this goal.
  • Lack of legal instruments: The need for expansion of connectivity was stressed by one and all, but when it comes to finalising legal instruments for coastal shipping, road transport and intra-regional energy grid connection, much work remains unfinished.
  • There needs to be mention of the speedy success achieved in deepening cooperation in security matters and management of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR).
  • Focus more on new areas: BIMSTEC should focus more in the future on new areas such as the blue economy, the digital economy, and promotion of exchanges and links among start-ups and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).
  •  Step up the personal engagement of political leadership: The personal engagement of the political leadership should be stepped up.
  • The decision taken in Colombo to host a summit every two years is welcome if implemented.
  • Greater visibility:  BIMSTEC needs greater visibility.
  • India’s turn to host the G20 leaders’ summit in 2023 presents a golden opportunity, which can be leveraged optimally. Perhaps all its members should be invited to the G20 summit as the chair’s special guests.
  • Simplify the groupings name: The suggestion to simplify the grouping’s name needs urgent attention.
  • The present name running into 12 words should be changed to four words only — the Bay of Bengal Community (BOBC).
  • It will help the institution immensely. Brevity reflects gravitas.


BIMSTEC is no longer a mere initiative or programme. The question to address is whether it is now capable of tackling the challenges facing the region.

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Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Bridging the bay in quest of a stronger BIMSTEC


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Centre for Bay of Bengal Studies (CBS)

Mains level : Paper 2- Quest for a stronger BIMSTEC


Sri Lanka is gearing up to host the Fifth Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Summit, now in its silver jubilee year. The summit is being held in virtual/hybrid mode and Sri Lanka is the current BIMSTEC chair.

Why BIMSTEC matters for India and the region

  • The unique ecology of BIMSTEC is witnessing enriched political support and commitment from India.
  • India has made the Bay of Bengal integral to India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies which can accelerate the process of regional integration.
  • Significance in economic and strategic space: Finalising the BIMSTEC Charter; BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity; BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters; BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility (TTF); cooperation between diplomatic academies/training institutions; and a template of Memorandum of Association for the future establishment of BIMSTEC centres/entities present signs of optimism.
  • BIMSTEC as a centre of Indo-Pacific: With a re-emergence of the idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, the growing economic, geopolitical and security connections between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions are creating a shared strategic space.
  • The Bay of Bengal is evolving as the centre of the Indo-Pacific region again.
  • The renewed focus has given a new lease of life to the developmental efforts in the region, in particular BIMSTEC.

Way forward for BIMSTEC

1] Political support and strong commitment from all member countries

  • With a changed narrative and approach, the Bay of Bengal has the potential to become the epicentre of the Indo-Pacific idea — a place where the strategic interests of the major powers of East and South Asia intersect.
  • Potential of BIMSTEC: There is a greater appreciation of BIMSTEC’s potential due to geographical contiguity, abundant natural and human resources, and rich historical linkages and a cultural heritage for promoting deeper cooperation in the region.
  • Political support and strong commitment from all member countries are crucial in making BIMSTEC a dynamic and effective regional organisation.

2] Boost connectivity

  • Connectivity is essential to develop a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable Bay of Bengal region.
  • The BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity will provide the necessary boost to connectivity.
  •  Therefore, BIMSTEC needs to address two dimensions of connectivity – one, upgrading and dovetailing national connectivity into a regional road map; and two, development of both hard and soft infrastructures.

3] Enhance cooperation in different areas

  • There is growing involvement of educational institutions, industries and business chambers through various forums and conclaves which are helping to enhance cooperation in the areas of education, trade and investments, information technology and communication among others.
  • India has implemented its promise to set up a Centre for Bay of Bengal Studies (CBS) at Nalanda University, Bihar for research on art, culture and other subjects related to the Bay of Bengal.

4] Strengthen the institutional capacity of the BIMSTEC Secretariat

  • The BIMSTEC Secretariat coordinates, monitors and facilitates the implementation of BIMSTEC activities and programmes. The leaders must agree to strengthen the institutional capacity of the BIMSTEC Secretariat.
  • Charter for BIMSTEC: Approval of a charter for BIMSTEC during the summit will further augment its visibility and stature in international fora.


The quest for economic growth and the development of the BIMSTEC region can be achieved with single-minded focus and cooperation among the member counties. In this endeavour, India has a key role in accelerating regional cooperation under the BIMSTEC framework and in making it vibrant, stronger and result-oriented.

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Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

BIMSTEC must get back on course


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Bay Of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem (BOBLME) project

Mains level : Paper 2- BIMSTEC-challenges and opportunities


As world attention remains focused on the war in Ukraine, leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) will attend a summit meeting of the regional organisation.

Fourteen pillars for special focus

  • Founded in 1997, the seven-member BIMSTEC includes the littoral states of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Thailand is a member too) and the land-locked states of Nepal and Bhutan.
  • BIMSTEC has identified 14 pillars for special focus.
  • These are trade and investment, transport and communication, energy, tourism, technology, fisheries, agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter terrorism and transnational crime, environment and disaster management, people-to-people contact, cultural cooperation and climate change.
  • While each sector is important, the segmented approach has resulted in aspirations rather than action.
  • The upcoming summit is an opportunity to take concrete steps to address critical challenges confronting the region.

Challenges facing Bay of Benga

1] Threat facing marine ecosystem

  • The Bay is an important source of natural resources for a coastal population of approximately 185 million people.
  • The Bay of Bengal is home to a large network of beautiful yet fragile estuaries, mangrove forests of around 15,792 square kilometres, coral reefs of around 8,471, sea grass meadows and mass nesting sites of sea turtles.
  • Loss of mangrove and coral reefs: The annual loss of mangrove areas is estimated at 0.4% to 1.7% and coral reefs at 0.7%. I
  • Increasing sea levels: It is predicted that the sea level will increase 0.5 metres in the next 50 years.
  • Cyclonic storms: Moreover, there have been 13 cyclonic storms in the last five years.
  • According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Bay of Bengal is one of IUU fishing hotspots in the Asia-Pacific.
  • The pressing challenges that confront the Bay of Bengal include the emergence of a dead zone with zero oxygen where no fish survive;
  • Leaching of plastic from rivers as well as the Indian Ocean;
  • Destruction of natural protection against floods such as mangroves; sea erosion;
  • Growing population pressure and industrial growth in the coastal areas and consequently, huge quantities of untreated waste flow.

2] Security threats

  • Security threats such as terrorism, piracy and tensions between countries caused by the arrests of fishermen who cross maritime boundaries are additional problems.
  • The problem of fishermen crossing into the territorial waters of neighbouring countries affect India and Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and Myanmar (also Pakistan on the west coast).

Way forward

1] Tap the blue economy potential of Bay of Bengal by creating a regional mechanism

  • There are many opportunities to develop maritime trade, shipping, aquaculture and tourism.
  • The BIMSTEC Summit must create a new regional mechanism for coordinated activities on maritime issues of a transboundary nature.
  • There is also a need for greater scientific research on the impact of climate change in general and on fisheries in particular.
  • Cooperation on marine research: At present, there is limited cooperation between countries of the region in marine research.
  • The use of modern technology and improved fishing practices can go a long way in restoring the health of the Bay.

2] Focus on the marine environmental protection

  • Marine environmental protection must become a priority area for cooperation in the Bay of Bengal.
  • Develop regional protocols: Regional protocols need to be developed and guidelines and standards on pollution control established.
  • Need for home-grown solutions: There is a need for home-grown solutions based on the capabilities of local institutions and for mutual learning through regional success stories.
  • Regional framework for data collection: There is a need to create regional frameworks for data collection.
  • Participatory approaches must be evolved for near-real-time stock assessment and the creation of a regional open fisheries data alliance.
  • The Bay of Bengal Programme (BOBP), an inter-governmental organisation based in Chennai, is doing good work to promote sustainable fishing.
  • A Bay Of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem (BOBLME) project is also being launched by the FAO with funding from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and others.
  • The BIMSTEC summit must express full support for both BOBP and BOBLME.
  • The summit must mandate officials to come up with measures to curtail unsustainable as well as IUU fishing.
  • Harmonisation of laws in littoral states: Laws and policies in littoral states must be harmonised and the humanitarian treatment of fishermen ensured during any encounter with maritime law enforcement agencies.


The challenges that confront the Bay of Bengal region brook no more delay. BIMSTEC must arise, awake and act before it is too late.

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Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Pakistan ready to host SAARC Summit


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC

Mains level : Revival of SAARC

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah has said that his country was ready to host the 19th SAARC Summit and invited India to join it virtually if it is not willing to visit Islamabad.


  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is the regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of states in South Asia.
  • Members: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
  • It was established in Dhaka on 8 December 1985. Its secretariat is based in Kathmandu, Nepal.
  • The organization promotes the development of economic and regional integration.
  • It 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 skeptical.
  • Eventually, both countries relented and in 1983 in Dhaka, joined the other five nations in signing the Declaration.

Economic significance of SAARC

  • 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.
  • It launched the South Asian Free Trade Area in 2006.

Major accomplishments

  • Forum for discussions: 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.
  • Diplomatic tool: India and Pakistan for example would struggle to publicly justify a meeting when tensions between the two are particularly high, but both countries often come together under the banner of SAARC.
  • Crisis management: The bloc has also made some headway in signing agreements related to climate change, food security and combating the Covid-19 crisis.
  • Technology: It has been another avenue of cooperation marked by the launch of South Asia Satellite by India.

Limitations to SAARC

  • Small scale: Despite its lofty ambitions, SAARC has not become a regional association in the mould of the European Union or the African Union.
  • Internal divisions: Its member states are plagued by internal divisions, most notably the conflict between India and Pakistan.
  • Trade disputes: This in turn has hampered its ability to form comprehensive trade agreements or to meaningfully collaborate on areas such as security, energy and infrastructure.
  • Terrorism: The last SAARC summit to be held in Pakistan has been cancelled several times due to many nations pulling out of the summit citing fears of regional insecurity.

Why must India rethink on SAARC?

  • Extended diplomacy: India continued to attend Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meetings along with their Pakistani counterparts.
  • Pandemic mitigation: Reviving SAARC is crucial to countering the common challenges brought about by the pandemic.
  • Economic cooperation: Apart from the overall GDP slowdown, global job cuts has led to fall in revenue for migrant labour and expatriates from South Asian countries.
  • Countering China: While dealing with China, a unified South Asian platform is a crucial countermeasure for India.


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Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

How India’s Gati Shakti Plan can have an impact beyond its borders


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Gati Shakti plan

Mains level : Paper 2- Gati Shakti plan's impact beyond border


The Gati Shakti National Master Plan will have an important economic multiplier effect at home, it must also be leveraged to have an external impact by aligning it with India’s regional and global connectivity efforts.

Main components of the Gati Shakti National Master Plan

  • The Gati Shakti plan has three main components, all focused on domestic coordination.
  • Increase information sharing: The plan seeks to increase information sharing with a new technology platform between various ministries at the Union and state levels.
  • Reduce logistics’ costs: It focuses on giving impetus to multi-modal transportation to reduce logistics’ costs and strengthen last-mile connectivity in India’s hinterland or border regions.
  • Analytical tool: The third component includes an analytical decision-making tool to disseminate project-related information and prioritise key infrastructure projects.
  • This aims to ensure transparency and time-bound commitments to investors.

How Gati Shakti Plan can strengthen India’s economic ties with its neighbours

  • The plan will automatically generate positive effects to deepen India’s economic ties with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, as well as with Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
  • India’s investment in roads, ports, inland waterways or new customs procedures generate positive externalities for these neighbours, who are keen to access the growing Indian consumer market.
  • Any reduction in India’s domestic logistics costs brings immediate benefits to the northern neighbour, given that 98 per cent of Nepal’s total trade transits through India and about 65 per cent of Nepal’s trade is with India.
  • In 2019, trade between Bhutan and Bangladesh was eased through a new multimodal road and waterway link via Assam.
  • The new cargo ferry service with the Maldives, launched last year, has lowered the costs of trade for the island state.
  • And under the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation Programme, India’s investments in multimodal connectivity on the eastern coast is reconnecting India with the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia through integrated rail, port and shipping systems.
  • Whether it is the alignment of a cross-border railway, the location of a border check post, or the digital system chosen for customs and immigration processes, India’s connectivity investments at home will have limited effects unless they are coordinated with those of its neighbours and other regional partners.
  • While India recently joined the Transports Internationaux Routiers (TIR) convention, which facilitates cross-border customs procedures, none of its neighbouring countries in the east has signed on to it.

Suggestions for Gati Shakti Plan to have maximum external effect

  • First, India will have to deepen bilateral consultations with its neighbours to gauge their connectivity strategies and priorities.
  • Given political and security sensitivities, India will require diplomatic skills to reassure its neighbours and adapt to their pace and political economy context.
  • A second way is for India to work through regional institutions and platforms. SAARC’s ambitious regional integration plans of the 2000s are now defunct, so Delhi has shifted its geo-economic orientation eastwards.
  • The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has got new momentum, but there is also progress on the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative.
  • Finally, India can also boost the Gati Shakti plan’s external impact by cooperating more closely with global players who are keen to support its strategic imperative to give the Indo-Pacific an economic connectivity dimension.
  • This includes the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, but also Japan, the US, Australia, EU and ASEAN.


Gati Shakti plan must also leveraged to have an external impact by aligning it with India’s regional and global connectivity efforts.

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Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Why the SAARC meeting was cancelled


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.


  • 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.


  • 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.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[pib] Forum of the Election Management Bodies of South Asia (FEMBoSA)


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : FEMBoSA

Mains level : Not Much

The Election Commission of India has handed over the Chair of FEMBoSA to the Election Commission of Bhutan for 2021-22.

What is FEMBoSA?

  • Forum of the Election Management Bodies of South Asia (FEMBoSA) was established at the 3rd Conference of Heads of Election Management Bodies (EMBs) of SAARC Countries in 2012.
  • The forum aims to increase mutual cooperation with respect to the common interests of the SAARC’s EMBs.
  • The Forum has eight Member Election Management Bodies from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
  • The Election Commission of India was the latest Chair of the Forum (now Bhutan).

Its establishment

  • The first meeting of the representatives of Election Management Bodies of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan was held in Dhaka, Bangladesh in the year 2010.
  • It was then decided at the conclusion that an organization representing those countries should be established.
  • Consequently, annual meets were held in the member countries and the charter for the organization also was adopted with the aim of fulfilling the objectives of the organization.
  • Since the creation of FEMBoSA, Annual Meetings were held in Pakistan (2011), in India (2012), in Bhutan (2013), in Nepal (2014),  in Sri Lanka (2015), in Maldives (2016), in Afghanistan (2017) and in Bangladesh(2018).

Objectives of FEMBOSA

  • Promote contact among the Election Management Bodies of SAARC countries
  • Facilitate the appropriate exchange of experience and expertise among members
  • Share experiences with a view to learning from each other
  • Foster efficiency and effectiveness in conducting the free, fair, transparent, and participative election

Significant activities under FEMBoSA

  • Member organizations celebrate National Voter’s Day in a calendar year in their respective countries
  • An initiative of establishing South Asia Institute for Democracy and Electoral Studies (SAIDES) in Nepal
  • In order to increase knowledge related to elections, take initiatives to include voter education in the school-level textbooks of their respective countries
  • Implementation of recommendations of South Asian Disabilities Organizations for the inclusion of disabled people in the electoral system and the creation of a suitable election environment

Back2Basics: SAARC

  •  In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, leaders of South Asian nations — namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — created a regional forum.
  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the goal of contributing “to mutual trust, understanding, and appreciation of one another’s problems.”
  • Afghanistan was admitted as a member in 2007.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations



From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC countries

Mains level : Paper 2- Relevance of SAARC


Despite the framework SAARC provides for cooperation amongst South Asian nations, it has remained sidelined and dormant since its 18th summit of 2014 in Kathmandu. No alternative capable of bringing together South Asian countries for mutually beneficial diplomacy has emerged.

Common challenges facing South Asia

  • The region is beset with unsettled territorial disputes, as well as trans-border criminal and subversive activities and cross-border terrorism.
  • The region also remains a theatre for ethnic, cultural, and religious tensions and rivalries besides a current rise in ultra-nationalism
  • Nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan are at loggerheads.
  • US military withdrawal from Afghanistan has fuelled fears of intensification of these trends.

Significance of SAARC

  • As the largest regional cooperation organisation, SAARC’s importance in stabilising and effectively transforming the region is becoming increasingly self-evident.
  • SAARC is needed as institutional scaffolding to allow for the diplomacy and coordination that is needed between member-states in order to adequately address the numerous threats and challenges the region faces.
  • Though SAARC’s charter prohibits bilateral issues at formal forums, SAARC summits provide a unique, informal window — the retreat — for leaders to meet without aides and chart future courses of action.
  • The coming together of leaders, even at the height of tensions, in a region laden with congenital suspicions, misunderstandings, and hostility is a significant strength of SAARC that cannot be overlooked.
  • In March last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seized the Covid-19 crisis and utilised SAARC’s seal to convene a video conference of SAARC leaders.
  • Such capacity to bring member-states together shows the potential power of SAARC.

What role SAARC can play in Afghanistan

  • Commitment to get rid of terrorism: The third SAARC summit in 1987 adopted a Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism and updated it in 2004 with the signing of an additional protocol.
  • These instruments demonstrate the collective commitment to rid the region of terror and promote regional peace, stability, and prosperity.
  • Using the network of institutions: In 36 years of existence, SAARC has developed a dense network of institutions, linkages, and mechanisms.
  • SAARC members are among the top troop-contributing countries to UN peacekeeping missions.
  • Joint peacekeeping force: With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a joint peacekeeping force from the SAARC region under the UN aegis could be explored to fill the power vacuum that would otherwise be filled by terrorist and extremist forces.

Consider the question “What role SAARC can play in stabilising the region after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan? Is SAARC still relevant for the region?”


Allowing SAARC to become dysfunctional and irrelevant greatly distorts our ability to address the realities and mounting challenges facing SAARC nations.

Back2Basics: About SAARC

  •  In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, leaders of South Asian nations — namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — created a regional forum.
  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the goal of contributing “to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems.”
  • Afghanistan was admitted as a member in 2007.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations



From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 2- Reviving BIMSTEC

More than two decades after its formation, BIMSTEC still remains a work in progress. And it has many obstacles to overcome. The article highlights challenges and progress made so far.

Background of BIMSTEC

  • The foreign ministers of BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) met virtually on April 1.
  • It was established as a grouping of four nations — India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — through the Bangkok Declaration of 1997 to promote rapid economic development.
  • BIMSTEC was expanded later to include three more countries — Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan.
  • It moved at a leisurely pace during its first 20 years with only three summits held and a record of modest achievements.

Growing significance

  • BIMSTEC suddenly received special attention when India chose to treat it as a more practical instrument for regional cooperation over a faltering SAARC.
  • The BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat, followed by their Outreach Summit with the BRICS leaders in Goa in October 2016, drew considerable international limelight to the low-profile regional grouping.
  • At the fourth leaders’ summit in Kathmandu in 2018, a plan for institutional reform and renewal that would encompass economic and security cooperation was devised.
  • It took the important decision to craft a charter to provide BIMSTEC with a more formal and stronger foundation.
  • The shared goal now is to head towards “a Peaceful, Prosperous and Sustainable Bay of Bengal Region”.

Why the recent summit is important

  • In the recent virtual summit, the foreign ministers cleared the draft for the BIMSTEC charter.
  • They endorsed the rationalisation of sectors and sub-sectors of activity, with each member-state serving as a lead for the assigned areas of special interest.
  • The ministers also conveyed their support for the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity.
  • Preparations have been completed for the signing of three agreements:
  • 1) Mutual legal assistance in criminal matters.
  • 2) Cooperation between diplomatic academies.
  • 3) The establishment of a technology transfer facility in Colombo.

Lack of progress on trade

  • In the recent deliberation, there was no reference to the lack of progress on the trade and economic dossier.
  • A January 2018 study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry had suggested that BIMSTEC urgently needed a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement to be a real game-changer.
  • Ideally, it should cover trade in goods, services and investment; promote regulatory harmonisation; adopt policies that develop regional value chains, and eliminate non-tariff barriers.
  • Also lacking was an effort to enthuse and engage the vibrant business communities of these seven countries.
  • Over 20 rounds of negotiations to operationalise the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area Framework Agreement, signed in 2004, are yet to bear fruit.


  • Much has been achieved in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and security, including counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and coastal security cooperation.
  • India has led through constant focus and follow-up.
  • While national business chambers are yet to be optimally engaged with the BIMSTEC project, the academic and strategic community has shown ample enthusiasm through the BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks and other fora.


  • A strong BIMSTEC presupposes cordial and tension-free bilateral relations among all its member-states.
  • However, there has been tensions in India-Nepal, India-Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh-Myanmar ties in recent years.
  • Second, uncertainties over SAARC hovers, complicating matters. Both Kathmandu and Colombo want the SAARC summit revived, even as they cooperate within BIMSTEC, with diluted zeal.
  • Third, China’s decisive intrusion in the South-Southeast Asian space has cast dark shadows.
  • Finally, the military coup in Myanmar and the continuation of popular resistance resulting in a protracted impasse have produced a new set of challenges.

Consider the question “What are the challenges BIMSTEC faces in emerging as an alternative to the SAARC? What are its achievements?”


The grouping needs to reinvent itself, possibly even rename itself as ‘The Bay of Bengal Community’. It should consider holding regular annual summits. Only then will its leaders convince the region about their strong commitment to the new vision they have for this unique platform linking South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Reclaiming SAARC


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :


Mains level : Paper 2- Revival of SAARC

The article examines the issues are making it difficult to function and suggests its revival.

Dysfunctional SAARC and its implications

  • The year 2020 marked the sixth year since the leaders of the eight nations that make up SAARC were able to meet.
  • India-Pakistan issues have impacted other meetings of SAARC as well.
  • Inactive SAARC is making it easier for member countries, as well as international agencies, to deal with South Asia as a fragmented group.
  • India’s refusal to allow Pakistan to host the SAARC summit is akin to giving Pakistan a ‘veto’ over the entire SAARC process.
  • The events of 2020, particularly the novel coronavirus pandemic and China’s aggressions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) shone a new spotlight on this mechanism.
  • This should make the government review its position and reverse that trend.

Reasons India should review its position on SAARC

1) India attend other forums with Pakistan

  • India continued to attend Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meetings along with their Pakistani counterparts.
  • While China’s incursions in Ladakh constituted the larger concern in the year, India did not decline to attend meetings with the Chinese leadership at the SCO, the Russia-India-China trilateral, the G-20 and others.
  • No concerns over territorial claims stopped the government from engaging with Nepal either.

2) Pandemic caused challenges

  • Reviving SAARC is crucial to countering the common challenges brought about by the pandemic.
  • Studies have shown that South Asia’s experience of the pandemic has been unique from other regions of the world.
  • This experience needs to be studied further in a comprehensive manner in order to counter future pandemics.
  • Such an approach is also necessary for the distribution and further trials needed for vaccines, as well as developing cold storage chains for the vast market that South Asia represents.

3) Impact of the pandemic on economies of South Asia

  • Apart from the overall GDP slowdown, global job cuts which will lead to an estimated 22% fall in revenue for migrant labour and expatriates from South Asian countries.
  • World Bank have suggested that South Asian countries work as a collective to set standards for labour from the region, and also to promoting a more intra-regional, transnational approach towards tourism, citing successful examples including the ‘East Africa Single Joint Visa’ system.
  • In the longer term, there will be a shift in priorities towards health security, food security, and job security, that will also benefit from an “all-of” South Asia approach.
  • While it will be impossible for countries to cut themselves off from the global market entirely, regional initiatives will become the “Goldilocks option”.

4) Dealing with the China challenge

  • In dealing with the challenge from China too, both at India’s borders and in its neighbourhood, a unified South Asian platform remains India’s most potent countermeasure.
  • At the border, tensions with Pakistan and Nepal amplify the threat perception from China, while other SAARC members (minus Bhutan), all of whom are Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partners of China will be hard placed to help individually.
  • Significantly, from 2005-14, China actually wanted to join SAARC.
  • Despite the rebuff, China has continued to push its way into South Asia.


Seen through Beijing’s prism, India’s SAARC neighbourhood may be a means to contain India, with the People’s Liberation Army strategies against India over the LAC at present, or in conjunction with Pakistan or Nepal at other disputed fronts in the future. New Delhi must find its own prism with which to view its South Asian neighbourhood as it should be: a unit that has a common future, and as a force-multiplier for India’s ambitions on the global stage.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

South Asian University


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : South Asian University

Mains level : SAARC and its fading relevance

The Delhi-based South Asian University, established by all eight SAARC countries, has not had a president for over a year, while its executive council and governing board have not met for almost two and three years respectively.

Note the features of SAARC, ASEAN and East Asia Summit.

South Asian University

  • South Asian University (SAU) is an International University sponsored by the eight Member States of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
  • The eight countries are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
  • India, as the host and the largest country in the SAARC group, bore the entire capital cost for setting up the university, and also pays 50% of the operational costs.
  • SAU attracts students predominantly from all the eight SAARC countries, although students from other continents also attend.
  • There is a country quota system for admission of students. Every year SAU conducts admission test at multiple centres in all the eight countries.
  • The degrees of the university is recognised by all the member nations of the SAARC according to an inter-governmental agreement signed by the foreign ministers of the eight-member states.

Institution on failure

  • After a decade of existence, the university has yet to appoint a non-Indian president, despite rules stipulating a rotation among the member countries.
  • At a time when the Union government is trying to encourage international education in India, an existing international institution is facing a crisis of leadership.

A matter of reluctance

  • According to the agreement signed by all the SAARC countries, the first president should have been from India, and then rotated among the other countries in alphabetical order.
  • So the next president should be from the Maldives.
  • But the MEA has put an advertisement calling only for Indian applicants, but there has been no appointment after one year.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Sharing Indo-Pacific vision in the region


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Indo-Pacific construct

Mains level : Paper 2- India's Indo-Pacific vision

 Where do we geographically place the Indo-Pacific?

  • Term “Indo-Pacific” has come into prominence in the past decade.
  • India has used it in joint statements with a series of partner countries, including but not limited to the United States, Australia, France, Indonesia, Japan, and of course the United Kingdom.
  • It figures in meetings with our ASEAN and has helped advance the Quad consultations.
  • Indian Foreign Ministry has recently set up an Indo-Pacific Division as well as an Oceania Division a sign of India’s commitment to this critical geography.
  • This has encouraged other countries to perceive and define the region in its full extent.
  • For India, the Indo-Pacific is that vast maritime space stretching from the western coast of North America to the eastern shores of Africa.
  • Today, more and more countries are aligning their definition of the Indo-Pacific with Indias.

Historical background

  • During the Cold War, the Indo-Pacific was divided into different spheres of influence and military theatres.
  • Whether it was the monsoon winds– or our maritime and trading history, we found it impossible to see the Horn of Africa and the Straits of Malacca on the other as disconnected.
  • The first for this is that the Indian peninsula, which thrusts into the Indian Ocean and gives us two magnificent coasts and near limitless maritime horizons to both our east and our west.
  • Monks and merchants, culture and cargo have travelled from India on those waters, to our east, west and south.
  • India’s great religious traditions, such as Buddhism, spread far and wide in the Indo-Pacific.
  • These experiences are our past and are our future; these experiences determine our concept of the Indo-Pacific.

Why is the Indo-Pacific crucial?

  • The interconnectedness of the Indo-Pacific is finally coming into full play.
  • A motivating factor is the region’s emergence as a driver of international trade and well-being.
  • The Indo-Pacific ocean system carries an estimated 65 per cent of world trade and contributes 60 per cent of global GDP.
  • Ninety per cent of India’s international trade travels on its waters.
  • For us, and for many others, the shift in the economic trajectory from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific has been hugely consequential.
  • The rise of China and the imperative for a global rebalancing have added to the mix.
  • A rules-based international order is achievable only with a rules-based Indo-Pacific.

India’s Indo-Pacific strategy

  • India’s Indo-Pacific strategy was enunciated in 2018 as the SAGAR doctrine.
  •  SAGAR is an acronym for “Security and Growth for All in the Region”.
  • This aspiration depends on securing end-to-end supply chains in the region; no disproportionate dependence on a single country; and ensuring prosperity for all stakeholder nations.
  • An Indo-Pacific guided by norms and governed by rules, with freedom of navigation, open connectivity, and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states, is an article of faith for India.
  • Using this Initiative, India plans to support the building of a rules-based regional architecture resting on seven pillars. These are:1) Maritime security
    2) Maritime ecology
    3) Maritime resources
    4) Capacity building and resource sharing
    5) Disaster risk reduction and management
    6) Science, technology and academic cooperation
    7) Trade connectivity and maritime transport
  • We have sought to strengthen security and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific by becoming a net security provider – in the Gulf of Aden.
  • Sharing what we can, in equipment, training and exercises, we have built relationships with partner countries across the region.
  • In the past six years, India has provided coastal surveillance radar systems to half a dozen nations – Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
  • All of these countries also use Indian patrol boats, as do Mozambique and Tanzania.
  •  Mobile training teams have been deputed to 11 countries.
  • Located just outside New Delhi, the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region has enhanced maritime domain awareness among partner countries.
  • India has also promoted and contributed to infrastructure, connectivity, economic projects and supply chains in the region.

Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief

  • Notable humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions in the Indo-Pacific in recent years have included Operation Rahat in Yemen in 2015.
  • Whether it was the cyclone in Sri Lanka in 2016 or deaths and large-scale displacement of people that occurred in Madagascar in January this year, Indian assistance and an Indian ship have never been far away.
  • The Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI)is intrinsic to India’s regional and global commitment to taking on climate change.


Whatever the navigation map, the fact that the Indo-Pacific is the 21st century’s locus of political and security concerns and competition, of growth and development, and of technology incubation and innovation is indisputable.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Challenges India faces in managing relations in neighbourhood


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 2- India and relations with its neighbours

The article analyses the inherent challenges India faces in managing good relations with its neighbours.

Duality challenge

  • Even for the Britishers, it was an unceasing struggle to sustain its primacy in the region.
  • The notion of regional primacy certainly persisted in the Nehru era.
  • Primacy was hard to sustain after Independence even within the immediate neighbourhood.

Five reasons stand out

1) Partition of the subcontinent

  • The problems generated by the great division of the Subcontinent on religious lines continue to animate the region.
  • Partition created the challenges of settling boundaries, sharing river-waters, protecting the rights of minorities, and easing the flow of goods and people.
  • The burden of the Subcontinent’s history is not easily discarded.

2) Unification of China

  • The unification of China amidst the Partition of India had profoundly transformed the geopolitical condition of India.
  • Beyond the bilateral territorial dispute in the Himalayas, the emergence of a large and purposeful state on India’s frontiers was going to be a problem given the ease with which it could constrain Delhi within the Subcontinent.

3) India’s choice in favour of de-globalisation

  • Independent India’s conscious choice in favour of de-globalisation led to a steady dissipation of commercial connectivity with the neighbours.
  •  India’s economic reorientation since the 1990s and the rediscovery of regionalism did open possibilities for reconnecting with its neighbours.
  • Delhi today is acutely aware of the need to revive regional connectivity.
  • There is much progress in recent years — note, for example, the recent launch of a ferry service to the Maldives or the reopening of inland waterways with Bangladesh.
  • Integrating India’s regional economic and foreign policy remains a major challenge-Consider the recent fiasco of onion exports to Bangladesh.

4) Rise of political agency in the neighbourhood

  • India ignores the rise of political agency among neighbourhood elites and mass politics that they need to manage.
  • Their imperatives don’t always coincide with those of Delhi.
  • It is unlikely that Delhi can completely insure itself against the intra-elite conflicts in the neighbourhood.

5) Influence of domestic politics on foreign policy

  • Can India persistently champion Tamil minority rights in Sri Lanka without incurring any costs with the Sinhala majority?
  • But asking that question takes us to India’s own domestic politics.
  • Can Delhi ignore sentiments in India’s Tamil Nadu in making its Sri Lanka policy?
  • Indian Prime Minister did not attend the Colombo Commonwealth Summit in 2013 because of the Tamil minority issue.
  • The Teesta Waters agreement was not concluded due to political reasons.

Ways forward

  • Timely responses to problems.
  • Preventing small issues from becoming big.
  • Aligning Delhi’s regional economic policy with India’s natural geographic advantages .
  • These are some important elements of any successful management of India’s perennial neighbourhood challenges.


There are no easy answers to the regional difficulties that trouble all governments in Delhi. The source of the problem lies in the deeply interconnected nature of South Asian societies administered by multiple sovereigns.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Private: India must take the lead in South Asia

India has the privilege of being the South Asian region’s largest economy. COVID-19 has presented India with an unprecedented opportunity to help restructure the South Asian economy and regional cooperation. India can act as an engine of recovery for South Asia with a robust Multi-Sectoral plan for India’s COVID-19 diplomacy in the region.

Present dynamics of India’s relations:

  • India’s is facing trouble in relations not only with Pakistan, but also with Nepal, Bangladesh, possibly Sri Lanka, and pressure from China along the Tibet border.
  • The Maldives is possibly the only relatively bright spot for India in the region at present.

1. Nepal:

  • The Nepali PM K.P. Sharma Oli released a new political map claiming a part of Indian territory.
  • The new map shows the Kalapani, Limpiyadhura, and Lipulekh areas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand as belonging to Nepal.
  • India has rejected the claim, calling it contrary to the bilateral understanding to resolve the outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue.
  • The action followed large protests in Nepal after India opened an 80-kilometre road between Dharchula and Lipulekh in Uttarakhand, part of India’s effort to improve its infrastructure along the Tibet border.

2. Pakistan:

  • Pakistan has released a new political map, containing the whole of Jammu and Kashmir as well as parts of Gujarat.
  • As per Pakistan, the political map reflects their national aspiration and supports their stance on Kashmir dispute.
  • India has dismissed it as ridiculous assertions, calling it an exercise in political absurdity.

3. Bangladesh:

  • India is facing difficulties with Bangladesh. The India Citizenship Amendment Act(CAA), which is seen as targeting migrants from Bangladesh, has compromised the relations.
  • Bangladesh worries about possible reverse migration because there could be an exodus of Muslim migrants, especially from the northeastern state of Assam.

4. Sri Lanka:

  • The Rajapaksa clan is back in the office in Sri Lanka, and they are seen to be close to China.
  • There are reports that China is keen for Sri Lanka to distance itself from India and its other partners such as Japan.
  • The Sri Lankan government’s recent decision to halt a Japan-funded light rail project is one indicator that all is not well.
  • India-Japan collaboration on Sri Lanka’s East Container Terminal (ECT) project in Colombo is on shaky grounds.

5. Maldives:

  • India is making its pitch in the Maldives to restrict China’s growing influence.
  • India has announced a $500 million package to the Maldives to help it deal with the economic impact of the COVID-19.
  • India has announced new connectivity measures for the Maldives, including air, sea, intra-island and telecommunications, including the Greater Male Connectivity project.

Need for reorientation:

There are three fundamental reasons why India’s Neighbourhood First policy needs reorientation:

1. Pandemic depression:

  • There are dire warnings of a pandemic depression with growth projections worldwide revised heavily downward.
  • An estimated 42 million people within South Asia out of 100 million worldwide already driven back to extreme poverty.

2. Decline in export earnings:

  • The global slowdown is projected to hit South Asia’s major export earnings that include business services, textiles, transport equipment, labour and tourism.
  • This is compounded by a 22% decline in remittances to South Asia mainly from the Gulf, serious problems of finance and capital.
  • The supply nationalism has severely disrupted the global supply chains.
  • Supply nationalism: Countries put in place export restrictions with several instances of reserving key medical supplies for national use.

3. China’s influence:

  • China is using Covid-19 diplomacy to take several strategic initiatives vis-à-vis India’s neighbours in South Asia that require a commensurate response.

Way Forward:

The critical steps that India can take to invest in a robust regional action plan:

1. Strengthen SAFTA:

  • India could leverage regional trade, connectivity and investment, and strengthen the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) as a game-changer for the region.
  • Over 70% of South Asia’s population is dependent on subsistence agriculture and allied services.
  • India should lower the barriers to intra-regional food trade and encourage regional supply chains.

2. Boost Infrastructure:

  • The trade policy measures should be expanded from national to a regional level as an extension of India’s Neighbourhood First policy.
  • This includes freer transit trade through the region, development of supply and logistic chains, digital data interchange, single-window and digitised clearance systems, risk assessment and minimisation measures, wider use of trade lines of credit, denser connectivity, smoother cross-border inspections, and reduced transaction costs, using technology as a force multiplier.

3. Lead in the health sector:

  • India can lead in the sectors of health and food security.
  • PM Modi took a laudable initiative in convening a virtual summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders on March 15 to deal with the pandemic.
  • However, its medium-term impact has fallen short of the kind of impact India made in response to the 2004 tsunami in the region.
  • It has also been overtaken by the more aggressive COVID-19 diplomacy of China that included Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Nepal.
  • China has vowed the countries with offers of sharing its under development COVID-19 vaccine as early as September and duty-free access to its market.

4. Regional food security:

  • The regional food security is another area that India could take a major initiative in with an eye to the future.
  • Measures include using its ample food reserves of 83 million MT to deal with crises by augmenting access to the SAARC Food Bank that currently stands at less than 500,000 MT.

5. Ecological blueprint for South Asia:

  • The linkage between pandemics and ecology needs to be acknowledged.
  • India can provide an ecological blueprint for South Asia with a focus on the protection of biodiversity and dealing with the climate crisis.
  • The growing risk of the transmission of zoonotic diseases such as HIV, Ebola, SARS, H5N1 and Nipah virus underline the risks posed by habitat fragmentation, degradation and wet markets.

6. Multinational partnerships:

  • India can increase the capacity of sub-regional initiatives such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
  • The border regions can be effective partners in shaping India’s regional engagement by steering sectoral regional dialogues on cross-border trade, transport and health.


  • PM Modi’s call for a regional response to the pandemic has been a laudable step. The opportunity to turn the crisis into an opportunity will depend on India’s willingness to co-design a collective road map for South Asia.
  • India can fuel its national recovery by being the economic engine of the neighbourhood. This is what is needed to meet the Indian aspirations of being a regional power and curb the Chinese influence in the region.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Reviving SAARC


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.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Reimagining South Asian boundaries


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Regional cooperation in South Asian countries.

State-centric politics is the issue that plagues the regional cooperation in the region. But the consequences for the lives, livelihoods and the well-being of the people located at the edges of nation-states are overlooked. This issue is discussed in this article.

State plays central role in disputes

  • One of the major problems of South Asian politics is that it has to flow from within a state-centric paradigm.
  • This state-centrism has given the state structure the propriety to be the sole arbiter of disputes.
  • It is the state that articulates, defines, and represents “national” interests in negotiations with other states.
  • States in South Asia places importance on political boundaries as the “natural” shield even in the arbitration of South Asian affairs.
  • This approach happens to be the dominant South Asian pattern.
  • In this approach territorial boundaries are valued more than lives, livelihoods and the well-being of the people located at the edges of nation states.
  • “Patriotism” looms large as and when inter-state relationships are viewed through the statist lens.
  •  Hostility, real or imagined, is used as the governing principle in the arbitration of territorial disputes across South Asia.

Lack of regional identity

  • Basically, the term “region” seems to be a contested idea in a South Asian context.
  • This is because none of the South Asian states has ever recognised and respected the idea of regional identity or regional politics.
  • They have been wary of such natural division in politics.
  • Given that this is a reality, how could one even think of South Asia as a region to reckon with?

South Asia as region of regions

  • One must understand that South Asia is perhaps the most natural regional grouping of states around the world.
  • And, at the same time, it is also the most difficult and contested grouping.
  • South Asia needs to be rethought, not as a region of states, but as a region of regions.
  • As such it demonstrates itself more as a borderland that needs to be cultivated out of contact zones.
  • Such contact zone exists beyond the limits of territorial boundaries shared by the member-states.

So, how this applies to India-Nepal border dispute?

  • There is a need to go beyond the popular debates revolving around such “troubling” questions such as: how much area has been “encroached” upon by which state and on what basis.
  • Such questions appear to be “normal” in the way a “statist paradigm” deals with the issue.
  • To those who are to maintain their lifeworld at those zones these issues are troubling.

Interconnected (fluid) life

  • South Asian life, essentially at the edges of the nation state, is bound to be fluid.
  • This is because the boundary, which confirms the territorial limits of a nation state, is at the same time the affirmed threshold of another nation state.
  • In a certain sense, the people living at the edges of nation states within South Asia do not actually belong to any of the two nation states.
  • Or in other words, they belong to both the states at the same time.
  • Plurality, differences and inclusivity bring coherence to borderland ontology.
  • They defy the logic of singular, unifying, exclusive identities that the nation states privilege.

Implications for regional cooperation

  • Unless both India and Nepal agree to see the reality beyond the gaze of the statist paradigm, they would harm regional experiments such as the BIMSTEC or the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) sub-regional initiative.
  • South Asian states need to realise the difference between “regional cooperation” merely as advocacy and as an issue that demands self-approval and self-promotion.
  • South Asian countries may claim success on regional cooperation while closing all doors of recognising difference and mutual tolerance.
  • Powerful countries operating within and beyond the orbit of South Asia might become successful in establishing their control.
  • To establish control these countries may use the token of “regional cooperation” as an issue of realpolitik.

Consider the question “South Asia is perhaps the most natural regional grouping of states around the world, yet it is also the most difficult and contested grouping. Comment.”


Region and regional identity are not just issues of “realpolitik” in South Asia; rather, the need is to “officially” accommodate this rather naturally drafted way of doing politics, if we are genuinely concerned about South Asian geopolitics.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Common problems of South Asia call for collective efforts against Covid-19


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Poor health infrastructure of SAARC countries and other common problems.

The article discusses the various common features shared by the South Asians countries. One of them is the poor public healthcare infrastructure. So, the pandemic offers an opportunity to make the required policy changes. It also offers the opportunity for cooperation among the regional countries in dealing with Covid-19. These issues are discussed in the article.

South Asian countries: Common features, common problems

  • South Asia, one of the world’s most populous regions, is also affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Both Karachi and Mumbai, among the world’s most densely populated cities, where we live and work, are being overwhelmed by cases.
  • While the death rate in these places may not be as alarming as in Europe and the U.S., the collateral damage of the lockdown is taking its own toll.
  • Common features of South Asia: While there are many differences amongst the countries of the region, there are also common features which impact the health of its people, some of them a result of our shared cultural and geopolitical history.
  • The collective experience of dealing with COVID-19 may provide important lessons, which transcend national boundaries.

Poor healthcare system: a common problem

  • South Asian countries have invested very little in health.
  • This is reflected in our abysmally low health parameters.
  • It is interesting that Britain, which formulated our health policies before independence, went on to form one of the world’s strongest public health systems, the National Health Service.
  • Whereas its South Asian colonies chose to stray from that path.
  • This resulted in a dysfunctional public healthcare
  • Governments have also relinquished what ought to have been their primary duty, of health care provision, to the private sector.
  • Having become an industry, the focus of healthcare in the private sector is on profit rather than on people’s needs.
  • High treatment costs in private sector: Whilst privatisation has brought in advanced technology and expertise, the high costs of treatment in the private sector have resulted in impoverishment as most of the population has no insurance or third-party coverage, and pays out of pocket.
  • The sector has also been poorly regulated.
  • The result is that it is responsible for several excesses in its quest for profit.

Other common features of the region

  • Hunger, malnutrition, poor sanitation and large-scale migration are features of this region.
  • Existing infectious diseases like TB, HIV and malaria have been worsened by emerging ones like dengue, chikungunya, healthcare-associated infections and antimicrobial resistance.
  • The region is also an epicentre of an epidemic of lifestyle diseases.
  • Conflicts and expenditure on defence: Constant internal and external conflicts in South Asia not only consume a large portion of national budgets but also divert the attention of the public and policymakers from healthcare needs.
  • Defence budgets take the largest share of national budgets, and obviously adversely impact social sector spending.
  • Underfunded public health is going to hinder region’s capacity to fight COVID-19.
  • The central role of religion: Religion continues to occupy a central space in the society and politics of the region.
  • Though it offers succour to many, religious dogma can impact health policy and health-seeking behaviour.
  • The refusal of devotees across Pakistan to avoid religious congregations during Ramadan despite the government’s orders has significantly fed the community spread of the virus.

Opportunity for policy changes to address healthcare problems

  • COVID-19 has forced us to seriously reflect on our healthcare system.
  • This is welcome if it results in policy change.
  • Healthcare professionals and bodies must seize this opportunity to push our respective governments to address it seriously and not just as a pre-election strategy.
  • A long-term commitment to universal health care, with not only a national but also a regional and global focus, is needed.

A question on this theme could be asked by the UPSC, for instance, “South Asian countries share the common problem of poor public healthcare infrastructure, which increases their vulnerability to the pandemic. But corona pandemic also offers an opportunity to improve the shortcoming in the health infrastructure and cooperation among the SAARC countries. Comment.”

Regional strategy and cooperation needed

  • The SAARC heads of state have already offered help to one another.
  • A regional strategy has a better chance of controlling the pandemic than isolated national-level efforts.
  • The pooling of resources and sharing data may not only help flatten the curve but perhaps even develop into longer-term efforts towards effective treatment.
  • It is being speculated that our populations are behaving differently; that the BCG vaccine may be a protective influence.
  • Joint research into such areas can be a unifying point for SAARC.


It is in our collective interest to look at health security and not just national security. By the accident of their birth, South Asians have endured a lot. They merit better.


Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Preparing for SAARC 2.0


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Revival of SAARC is the need of the hour amid corona crisis.


A tweet by Prime Minister Narendra Modi resulted in the first-ever virtual summit of SAARC leaders on March 15. What has happened to this innovative exercise in health diplomacy since then?

The follow-up after the video-conference of SAARC members

  • Considering that SAARC has been dormant for several years due to regional tensions, it is worth stressing that the fight against COVID-19 has been taken up in right earnest through a series of tangible measures.
  • First, all the eight member-states were represented at the video conference — all at the level of head of state or government, except Pakistan.
  • The Secretary-General of SAARC participated. They readily agreed to work together to contain the virus and shared their experiences and perspectives.
  • SecondIndia’s proposal to launch a COVID-19 Emergency Fund was given positive reception.
  • Within days, all the countries, except Pakistan, contributed to it voluntarily, bringing the total contributions to $18.8 million. Although it is a modest amount, the spirit of readily expressed solidarity behind it matters.
  • Third, the fund has already been operationalised. It is controlled neither by India nor by the Secretariat.
  • It is learnt that each contributing member-state is responsible for approval and disbursement of funds in response to requests received from others.
  • Fourth, in the domain of implementation, India is in the lead, with its initial contribution of $10 million.
  • It has received requests for medical equipment, medicines and other supplies from Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
  • Many requests have already been accepted and action has been taken, whereas others are under implementation.
  • Fifth, a follow-up video-conference of senior health officials was arranged on March 26.
  • The agenda included issues ranging from specific protocols dealing with the screening at entry points and contact tracing to online training capsules for emergency response teams.
  • Technical cooperation: Steps are now underway to nurture technical cooperation through a shared electronic platform as also to arrange an exchange of all useful information among health professionals through more informal means.

Is the fund sufficient to deal with the grave threat?

  • So far, South Asia has not exactly borne the brunt of the pandemic.
  • Of the total confirmed cases in the world that stood at 12,89,380 on April 6 (according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resources Center), SAARC countries reported only 8,292 cases, representing 0.64%.
  • Reasons of lower spread not known: Whether the low share is due to limited testing, a peculiarity of the strain of the virus, people’s unique immunity, South Asia’s climate, decisive measures by governments, or just good fortune is difficult to say.
  • But it is evident that India’s imaginative diplomacy has leveraged the crisis to create a new mechanism for workable cooperation.
  • It will become stronger if the crisis deepens and if member-states see advantages in working together. Seven of the eight members already do.

Is it the sign of revival of SAARC?

  • To conclude that SAARC is now returning to an active phase on a broad front may, however, be
  • In the backdrop of political capital invested by New Delhi in strengthening BIMSTEC and the urgings it received recently from Nepal and Sri Lanka to resuscitate SAARC, India’s foreign minister said that India had no preference for a specific platform.
  • But India was fully committed to the cause of regional cooperation and connectivity.
  • The challenge facing the region is how to relate to a country which claims to favour regional cooperation, while working against it.
  • Clearly, India has little difficulty in cooperating with like-minded neighbours, as it showed by forging unity in the war against COVID-19.
  • This is diplomatic resilience and leadership at its best.


Given the grave threat posed by the pandemic and other benefits that the multilateral platforms such as SAARC offers Both New Delhi and its friendly neighbours need to start preparing themselves for SAARC 2.0.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Test of regional solidarity lies ahead


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Prospects of revival of SAARC and India's leadership in the aftermath of COVID-19.


If PM Modi’s gesture to SAARC is to go some way towards a solution for the region, India, which will be picking up the pieces itself, must have something to offer to its neighbours.


  • Not a viable option: Since 2014, when the last SAARC summit was held in Kathmandu, India had made it more than clear that it no longer considers the South Asia grouping viable.
    • It was Islamabad’s turn to host the next summit in 2016, but the Uri attack intervened, and India refused to attend.
  • SAARC in limbo: Under the SAARC charter, the summit cannot be held even if a single nation stays away, and the grouping has remained in limbo since.
  • India’s increased engagement with other groups: In the last five years, India has actively sought to isolate Pakistan in the region.
    • India hyped up its engagement with other regional groupings such as-
    • BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal), and
    • BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), which includes Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan.

How to read the sudden resurrection of SAARC?

  • Officials denied revival speculation: Despite hopes that this might be a SAARC revival, officials have discounted such speculation. That would require India to climb down from its position that Pakistan has taken verifiable steps to address India’s concerns on terrorism. There is no evidence at all that Delhi is about to do that.
  • No hope of move from Pakistan: It would need Pakistan to turn over a new leaf, stop playing with free radicals to use against India, in Kashmir or elsewhere when the time is ripe. Neither is about to happen.

No cooperative response in the works

  • First to call the neighbours: At a time when leaders across the globe appeared to be engrossed in the COVID-19 calamity of their own nations, Modi was the first to think of calling the neighbours.
  • Why cooperation among neighbours matter? Almost all South Asian countries are bound to each other by land borders and frequent inter-travel, and it is important that the region liaises to stop the disease from spreading across the Subcontinent.
  • Countries not willing to learn from each other: It was a trifle disappointing, therefore, that beyond the experience of witnessing a unique video summit, there is not much to suggest that a cooperative response is in the works.
    • There is no evidence that each country is willing to learn from the other’s experiences, or public health systems, or that we are tracking each other’s data and responses.
  • What were the proposals made in the summit? Two proposals were made:
    • One by India for a regional fund that Modi has generously offered to put aside $10 million for.
    • Pakistan proposed the setting up of a diseases surveillance centre for sharing real-time data. India has said it would prepare emergency response task forces to help out the member countries in need.
    • Delhi is said to be in the process of sending medical supplies worth $1 million to Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives, which sounds like a fraction of what they may eventually require.
    • Pakistan has said China will give it testing kits, protective gear and portable ventilators, as well as a cash grant for a state-of-the-art isolation centre.
    • Beijing, eager to live down its image as the point of origin for this global mayhem, will make the same offer to other South Asian countries soon.

What were the lessons India need to learn from video-summit?

  • Indian need to go beyond Big Brother events: If the intention was to try and restore the aura Prime Minister Modi enjoyed in the region at the beginning of NDA-1, as some have not improbably suggested, it has to go beyond this Big Boss event.
    • The video summit saw polite attendance by all SAARC leaders, with the exception of Pakistan which sent its health minister.
    • But going by the scant media coverage that the summit, the first after six years, received in the neighbourhood, no one is holding their breath.
  • India has lost heft it once held: For many countries in the region now, India has lost the heft it used to have in the last century.
    • A proximate reason is that it is no longer an economic powerhouse nor holds the promise of being one in the near future.
    • The other reason is that it no longer offers itself as a model nation, pulling together its complex diversities, pluralism and political ideologies in a broad-minded vision.
  • CAA factor and changing the perception of India: The real damage to India’s standing was, of course, done by the badmouthing of the Muslim countries in the neighbourhood to justify the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019.
    • Larger image of themselves: Seen from the eyes of other countries in South Asia today, India is now just a larger version of themselves and their political and economic dysfunctions.
    • While additionally possessing and wielding the instruments to be vengeful and punitive in its foreign policy — including arm-twisting them now and then in its constant quest to isolate Pakistan.


  • The real test for India lies ahead: The real test of Modi’s leadership of South Asia, and by extension of India’s, will come after the pandemic subsides, when each country has to deal with what remains of its economy.
    • The tourism economy of Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka would have been crushed by then. Pakistan will be worse off than it is now.
    • There will be more unemployment and hardship everywhere in the region.
    • Some of these countries will inevitably turn to China.
  • India must have something to offer as a solution: If Modi’s gesture is to go some way as part of the solution for the region, India, which will be picking up the pieces itself, must have something to offer to its South Asian neighbours six months to a year down the line.
    • Is there such a plan? Can India put aside the prejudices of its domestic communalism, and its own economic woes, demonstrate large-heartedness to all the countries of the region, irrespective of what religion its people follow, irrespective of its historical hostilities with at least one?
    • There may be more economic refugees knocking on India’s doors, apart from a host of other inter-regional problems.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Going regional


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC and BIMSTEC

Mains level : Paper 2- Why should India revive the SAARC?


Prime Minister Narendra Modi signalled a change in India’s rejection of SAARC as a platform for regional cooperation by inviting all heads of state and government of SAARC countries to a video summit to promote a region-wide response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

SAARC in virtual deep freeze

  • Who attended the video conference? The video summit was attended by all SAARC leaders, except for Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, who deputed his special assistant for health to represent him.
  • Status of SAARC: SAARC has been in a virtual deep freeze since India conveyed it would not attend the 19th SAARC summit, to be hosted by Pakistan in 2017, in the wake of the cross-border terrorist incidents at Pathankot and Uri.
    • Other SAARC leaders also declined to attend.
    • The summit was indefinitely postponed.
  • Focus on BIMSTEC: Since then India has downgraded SAARC as an instrument of its “Neighbourhood First” policy and shifted the focus to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) instead.

Backdrop of SAARC revival

  • For his swearing-in ceremony in 2014, PM Modi had invited leaders of all SAARC countries including Pakistan.
  • For the swearing-in ceremony in 2019, it is BIMSTEC leaders who were the invited guests.
  • Soon after taking over as external affairs minister, S Jaishankar referred to SAARC having “certain problems” while BIMSTEC was described as having both energy and possibility and “a mindset which fits in with that very optimistic vision of economic cooperation that we want.”
  • Deliberate political message: Against this backdrop, Modi’s initiative in convening a SAARC video summit, instead of a BIMSTEC video summit, conveys a deliberate political message.

Proposal of SAARC Covid-19 Fund and Health Ministers’ Conference

  • At the conference, Modi gave a call for the countries of SAARC “coming together and not going apart.”
  • A SAARC Covid-19 Fund has been proposed with India committing US$10 million.
  • Modi referred to the role which could be played by an existing SAARC institution, the Disaster Management Centre, in enabling a coordinated response to Covid-19.
  • Suggestions were made by several leaders, including the Pakistani representative, for a SAARC Health Ministers’ Conference to follow up on the summit. This is likely to be convened soon.

Pakistan on defensive

  • India seen as undermining SAARC: Modi’s initiative has put Pakistan on the defensive. So far, it was India which was seen as undermining SAARC in which other South Asian countries have a keen interest.
  • BIMSTEC no alternative to SAARC: While there has been readiness on their part to participate in BIMSTEC, they do not consider the latter as an alternative to SAARC. In taking this initiative, Modi may be responding to these sentiments.
  • Onus on Pakistan: If Pakistan now drags its feet, then the onus will be on her for weakening the Association.
    • There is a new situation as a result of the abrogation of Article 370 relating to Kashmir, which has been denounced by Pakistan.
  • Difficulty for Pakistan: It would be difficult for Pakistan to accept cooperation with India under SAARC because this would compromise its stand on Kashmir.

BIMSTEC not delivered expected results

  • Not yielded the expected result: It is also a fact that the focus on BIMSTEC has not yielded the results India may have expected.
  • Trade below the set target: Current trade among its members is US$40 billion, though the potential was set at $250 billion.
  • Act East policy stalled: India’s Act East policy, which involved a key role for India’s Northeast, has stalled.
  • RCEP factor: The Northeast is in political turmoil while India has opted out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would have added substance to BIMSTEC.

Why India should revive SAARC

1.BIMSTEC not a credible option to SAARC

  • Today it is difficult to see BIMSTEC as a credible and preferred alternative to SAARC.
  • Cooperation both through SAARC and BIMSTEC: In any case, it makes better sense for India to pursue regional economic cooperation both through SAARC as well as BIMSTEC rather than project them as competing entities.
  • SCO membership a contradictory position: If the argument is that regional cooperation involving Pakistan is a non-starter due to its ingrained hostility towards India, then being part of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), where both are members, becomes a somewhat contradictory position.

2.The China factor

  • China making inroad into the neighbourhood: In determining its position towards SAARC, India must also take into account the significant inroads that China has been making in its sub-continental neighbourhood.
  • BRI initiative: With the exception of Bhutan, every South Asian country has signed on to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
    • A number of Chinese infrastructure projects are already in place or are being planned in each of our neighbours.
  • China likely to become a key player: With SAARC becoming inoperative and BIMSTEC not living up to its promise, China is likely to become a key economic partner for South Asia and India’s hitherto pre-eminent role will be further eroded.
    • On this count, too, it is advisable for India to advance regional cooperation both under SAARC as well as BIMSTEC. Both are necessary.

3.Pakistan factor

  • Should not give up on Pakistan: Despite the frustration in dealing with Pakistan, India should not give up on its western neighbour.
  • Relation needs to be managed: Relations with Islamabad will remain adversarial for the foreseeable future but still need to be managed with two ends in mind.
    • One, to ensure that tensions do not escalate into open hostilities and,
    • two, to reduce leverage which third countries may exercise over both countries on the pretext of reducing tensions between them.
  • No compromise in position on terrorism: This does not in any way compromise our firm stand against cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan. The revival of SAARC could be an added constraint on Pakistan’s recourse to terrorism as an instrument of state policy.

4.Afghanistan factor

  • Finally, the revival of SAARC would also support the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul in navigating through a difficult and complex peace process involving a Pakistan-sponsored Taliban.


While these are essentially tactical considerations, there is a compelling reality which we ignore at our peril. Whether it is a health crisis like the Covid-19 or climate change, the melting of Himalayan glaciers or rising sea levels, all such challenges are better and more efficiently dealt with through regional cooperation. The Indian Subcontinent is an ecologically integrated entity and only regionally structured and collaborative responses can work.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

A revival of multilateralism, steered by India


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Opportunity for India to assume global leadership in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic


A leadership role by India in mobilising world collaboration would be in keeping with its traditional activism globally.

Challenges and two aspects associated with it.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out in sharp relief the compelling reality that has been staring us in the face for the past several years.
  • This reality has two aspects.
  • First aspect: That most challenges confronting the world and likely to confront it in the future are cross-national in character. They respect no national boundaries and are not amenable to national solutions.
  • Second aspect: These challenges are cross-domain in nature, with strong feedback loops.
    • A disruption in one domain often cascades into parallel disruptions in other domains.
    • For example, the use of chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides may promote food security but have injurious health effects, undermining health security.
    • Whether at the domestic or the international level, these inter-domain linkages need to be understood and inform policy interventions. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reflect this awareness.

Rise in nationalism

  • Need for multilateral approach: The intersection of cross-national and cross-domain challenges demand multilateral approaches.
    • They require empowered international institutions of governance.
    • Underlying these must be a spirit of internationalism and solidarity, a sense of belonging to common humanity.
  • Moving in the reverse direction-Rise of nationalism: Over the past decade and more, the world has been moving in the reverse direction. There has been an upsurge in narrow nationalism, an assertion of parochial interests over the pursuit of shared interests and a fostering of competition among states rather than embracing collaboration.
  • The global challenge of COVID-19: COVID-19 has brought these deepening contradictions into very sharp relief. This is a global challenge which recognises no political boundaries. It is intimately linked to the whole pattern of large-scale and high-density food production and distribution.
  • Health crisis turned into economic crisis: It is a health crisis but is also spawning an economic crisis through disrupting global value chains and creating a simultaneous demand shock. It is a classic cross-national and cross-domain challenge.

How countries are dealing with COVID-19 and possible outcomes

  • No coordination at the international level: But interventions to deal with the COVID-19 crisis are so far almost entirely at the national level, relying on quarantine and social distancing. There is virtually no coordination at the international level.
  • Blame game at the international level: We are also seeing a blame game erupt between China and the United States which does not augur well for international cooperation and leadership.
  • The hopeful outcome of international cooperation: While this is the present state of play, the long-term impact could follow alternative pathways.
    • One, the more hopeful outcome would be for countries to finally realise that there is no option but to move away from nationalistic urges and embrace the logic of international cooperation through revived and strengthened multilateral institutions and processes.
  • The depressing outcome of intense nationalist trends: The other more depressing consequence may be that nationalist trends become more intense, countries begin to build walls around themselves and even existing multilateralism is further weakened.
    • Institutions such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization which are already marginalised may become increasingly irrelevant.
    • There could be a return to autarkic economic and trade policies and an even deeper and more pervasive anti-globalisation sentiment.
  • Depression decade ahead: Unless there is a conscious effort to stem this through a reaffirmation of multilateralism, we are looking at a very depressing decade ahead.
    • This is when the world needs leadership and statesmanship, both in short supply.
  • Contrast with the financial crisis: This is in contrast to the U.S.-led response to the global financial and economic crisis of 2008 when the G-20 summit was born and a coordinated response prevented catastrophic damage to the global economy.

Leadership role for India

  • Is there a role here for India which is a key G-20 country, the world’s fifth-largest economy and with a long tradition of international activism and promotion of rule-based multilateralism?
  • In this context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks at the recent Economic Times Global Business Summit are to be welcomed.
    • While speaking of the COVID-19 crisis, he said, “Like today, the world is facing a huge challenge in the form of Corona Virus. Financial institutions have also considered it a big challenge for the financial world. Today, we all have to face this challenge together. We have to be victorious with the power of our resolution of ‘Collaborate to Create’.”
    • He went on to observe that while the world today is “inter-connected, inter-related and also interdependent”, it has “not been able to come on a single platform or frame a Global Agenda, a global goal of how to overcome world poverty, how to end terrorism, how to handle Climate Change issues.”
  • From “Equal distance” to friendship with all: Modi lauded government’s policy of seeking friendship with all countries as contrasted from the earlier policy of non-alignment. He seemed to suggest that non-alignment was a defensive policy which advocated “equal distance from every country”.
    • Now, he claimed, India was still “neutral” — presumably meaning non-alignment — “but not on the basis of distance but on the basis of friendship”.
    • He cited India’s friendship with Iran and Saudi Arabia, and with the U.S. as well as Russia.

India’s foreign policy

  • Non-alignment: Mr Modi may wish to distinguish his foreign policy from that of his predecessors, but what he describes as its “essence” is hardly distinguishable from the basic principles of Indian foreign policy since Nehru.
  • Non-alignment was not defensive: India’s non-alignment was anything but defensive. The international peace-keeping contribution that the Prime Minister referred to has its origins in Nehru’s sense of international responsibility.
  • Friendship with all: India has always professed its desire to have friendly relations with all countries but has been equally firm in safeguarding its interests when these are threatened.
  • Mutually beneficial partnership: India’s non-alignment did not prevent it from forging strong and mutually beneficial partnerships with major countries.
    • The India-Soviet partnership from 1960-1990 is an example just as the current strategic partnership with the U.S. is.
  • Foreign policy rooted in a civilisational sense: The foreign policy of his predecessors had been rooted in India’s civilisational sense, its evolving place in the international system and its own changing capabilities.
    • Their seminal contributions should be acknowledged and built upon rather than proclaim a significant departure.

Move in line with traditional foreign policy

  • The Prime Minister’s plea for global collaboration to deal with a densely interconnected world is in line with India’s traditional foreign policy.
    • Move in keeping with traditional activism on a global scale: A leadership role in mobilising global collaboration, more specifically in fighting COVID-19 would be in keeping with India’s traditional activism on the international stage.
  • Commendable SAARC move: The Prime Minister has shown commendable initiative in convening leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation nations for a regional collaborative effort on COVID-19.
    • International initiative: This should be followed by an international initiative, either through the G-20 or through the U.N.

Way forward

  • Reformed and Strengthened U.N. should be India’s agenda: The Prime Minister made no reference to the role of the U.N., the premier multilateral institution, as a global platform for collaborative initiatives. There may have been irritation over remarks by the UN Secretary-General on India’s domestic affairs and the activism displayed by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act controversy.
    • The U.N. Secretary General’s statement on India’s domestic affairs and activism by UN Secretary-General on India’s domestic affairs should not influence India’s long-standing commitment to the U.N. as the only truly inclusive global platform enjoying international legitimacy despite its failings.
    • If one has to look for a “single platform” where a Global Voice could be created, as the Prime Minister suggested, surely a reformed and strengthened U.N. should be on India’s agenda.
  • Opportunity for India in the pandemic: The COVID-19 pandemic presents India with an opportunity to revive multilateralism, become a strong and credible champion of internationalism and assume a leadership role in a world that is adrift. The inspiration for this should come from reaffirming the wellsprings of India’s foreign policy since its Independence rather than seeking to break free.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

From virtual conferencing to real leadership


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Need to revive the SAARC to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak


SAARC has become the ‘virtual’ platform through which leaders of the eight countries of our troubled region agreed to work together to combat unarguably the greatest immediate threat to the people: the COVID-19 health pandemic.

Success depends on India

  • The success of the Modi-SAARC initiative will largely depend on India—the dominant power of the region, in every sense.
  • Pakistan’s position may become marginal: Once New Delhi demonstrates that it has the capacity, the political willingness to institutionalise and to lead a mutually beneficial cooperative regime in the region, Pakistan’s “churlish” behaviour will become marginal to SAARC.
    • Various international relations theorists view this as a function of “hegemonic stability”.
  • Much needs to be done: Much more will need to be done by New Delhi to establish that the video conference was not a mere event, but the assertive expression of its new willingness to stabilise the region through cooperative mechanisms, for our common future.
  • Rare opportunity: This is a moment thus of a rare opportunity for India to establish its firm imprimatur over the region, and to secure an abiding partnership for our shared destiny.

The genesis of SAARC

  • SAARC was born at a moment of hope in the 1980s.
  • An initiative by Zia Ur Rehman: The idea was initiated by one of the most inscrutable leaders of the region, General Zia Ur Rehman of Bangladesh, who, met many of the other leaders personally and dispatched special envoys to the capitals of the countries of the region.
    • Dhaka’s persistence resulted in the first summit of the seven leaders of the region in 1985.
    • Afghanistan joined in 2007.
  • Not lived up to expectation: In the nearly 35 years of its existence, even its champions will concede however that SAARC has, to put it euphemistically, not lived up to the promise of its founder.

How the SAARC has performed?

  • The dismal performance in the trade: South Asia is the world’s least integrated region; less than 5% of the trade of SAARC countries is within. A South Asian Free Trade Zone agreed on, in 2006, remains, in reality, a chimera.
  • Moribund state: The last SAARC summit, scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016, was postponed after the terrorist attacks in Uri; none has been held since then, and until Mr. Modi’s initiative, no major meeting had been planned.
  • Marginal in our collective consciousness: A quick look at some of the questions posed in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha on SAARC, in the last years, suggest that Indian MPs seek answers on why India is still a member of SAARC and on the strength of other organisations such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) that India is engaged with.
    • Thus SAARC had become almost marginal to our collective consciousness.

The fadeout and revival of SAARC

  • India-Pakistan tension: Clearly, most of the smaller states and external players believe that the India-Pakistan conflict has undermined SAARC.
  • How Pakistan derails the initiatives? Bilateral issues cannot be discussed in SAARC but since the organisation relies on the principle of unanimity for all major decisions, Pakistan has often undermined even the most laudable initiative lest it gives India an advantage.
    • Relative gains by India are more important for Pakistan than the absolute gains it secures for itself.
  • Pakistan’s use of terror: For India, Pakistan’s use of terror as an instrument of foreign policy has made normal business impossible.
  • Need of the revival to deal with the COVID-19: There is no doubt that the impact of COVID-19 will be unprecedented, in terms of those it targets and the way we live. It is too early to judge the consequences , but it will take years for the world to return to the old and familiar.
    • Strategies to cope with this new insidious, scheming and diabolic strain of the coronavirus have to be dynamic and ad hoc.
    • Two principles to deal with the epidemic: Containment and the possible prevention of community transmission are the only two principles that are firmly tested.
    • If community transmission occurs and cannot be contained, the consequences will be calamitous.
  • Time to act together: This is indeed a time for SAARC and the experts of the region to think and act together and India can lead this effort.


It is evident that Mr Modi is an out-of-the-box lateral thinker, especially on foreign policy. More importantly, the tragedy of COVID-19 may provide an opportunity for India to demonstrate its compassionate face to secure a region at peace with itself. India cannot afford to not to harvest this opportunity, after having sowed the seeds of a New South Asia.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Regional bonding: On Ranil Wickremesinghe’s prescription for peace


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Issues in the SAARC, India need to move sub-regional grouping to increase the intra-regional trade.


Former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s push for regional economic integration and for India-Pakistan dialogue should be studied carefully by New Delhi.

What are the issues with SAARC?

  • Recent moves by India: India has more or less shut down all conversations on the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
    • India also walked away from the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
  •  Mr Wickremesinghe set out a number of suggestions:
  • The original purpose of SAARC-Regional growth: India-Pakistan tensions have brought economic integration within the SAARC region to a “standstill”.
    • That the original purpose of the South Asian group was to build a platform where bilateral issues could be set aside in the interest of regional growth.
  • Start at the sub-grouping levels: To engender more intra-regional trade, an even smaller sub-grouping of four countries with complementary economies: India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Thailand, can start the process of reducing tariffs and demolishing non-tariff barrier regimes.
    • When it comes to the intra-regional share of total trade, SAARC and BIMSTEC languish behind groupings such as ASEAN, EU and MERCOSUR.
  • Economic Integration Road Map: The Sri Lankan leader also suggested that with India’s leadership, a more integrated South Asian region would be better equipped to negotiate for better terms with RCEP so as not to be cut out of the “productivity network” in Asia, and envisioned an Economic Integration Road Map to speed up the process.

Governments stand

  • Talks with Pakistan off the table: The government has made it clear that talks with Pakistan are strictly off the table, and that a SAARC summit, which has not been held since 2014, is unlikely to be convened anytime soon.
  • More reliance on bilateral deals: The government, which has taken a protectionist turn on multilateral trade pacts, is relying more on direct bilateral deals with countries rather than overarching ones that might expose Indian markets to flooding by Chinese goods.
  • India’s trade deficit with the neighbours: For any regional sub-grouping in South Asia to flourish, it is India that will have to make the most concessions given the vast trade deficits India’s neighbours have at present, which it may not wish to do.


  • The overall projection that India’s global reach will be severely constrained unless it is integrated with its neighbours, and tensions with Pakistan are resolved, cannot be refuted. India needs to be more accommodative for the realisation of its ambitions.



Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Putting neighbours first


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- India's relation with its neighbours and progress on SAARC and BIMSTEC.


India has promoted regional cooperation in South Asia in a spirit of generosity, without insisting on reciprocity.

Relations with Sri Lanka

  • Beginning of new chapter in ties: The visit of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to India in February marked the beginning of a new chapter in ties with a friendly neighbour.
    • The neighbour with which India has close historical bonds straddling culture, religion, spirituality, art and language.
  • Growing convergence against terrorism: More relevantly, there is a growing convergence against terrorism following the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka last April.
  • There is deep appreciation in Sri Lanka for the free emergency services provided through 280 ambulances gifted by India, now operational in eight of the country’s nine provinces.
  • Prospects for tri-lateral cooperation: There are much better prospects today for tri-lateral cooperation between India, Japan and Sri Lanka in the development of the East Container Terminal at Colombo port and the proposed joint development of the Trincomalee oil storage tanks.
  • Indicators of a new warmth in relations:
    • Several infrastructure projects.
    • Direct flights between Chennai and Jaffna.
    • Resumption of ferry services.
    • India’s new lines of credit and construction of houses for the internally displaced.
    • Homeless and landless people are indicative of a new warmth in relations.
  • First visit to India: That both Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother President Gotabaya chose India as the destination for their first overseas visits after assuming office bodes well.

Relations with Maldives

  • First visit by PM Modi: After the general elections last year, PM Modi’s first foreign visit was to the Maldives in June 2019.
    • India first: The visit was to establish warm and friendly relations with President Ibrahim Solih, who has done much to promote closer relations with India through his “India First Policy”.
  • First visit to India: India was the first country that Solih had visited in December 2018, a far cry from his predecessor’s brazen anti-India slant.
    • Soon after assuming office, Solih’s government annulled a controversial 2015 law that was meant to allow foreigners, particularly from China, to arbitrarily own islands.
  • Projects worth 180 crores inaugurated: The inauguration during Modi’s visit of two projects worth Rs 180 crore-the Coastal Surveillance Radar System and the Composite Training Center of the Maldivian National Defence Forces-has deep significance for the success of India’s neighbourhood policy.
  • $800 million worth lines of credit: India’s offer of lines of credit worth about $800 million and other capacity-building projects for water supply and sewerage are strong planks in our economic ties.
  • Terrorism and radicalisation are subjects of common concern.
  • DOSTI exercise: The agreement to restart the tri-lateral DOSTI naval exercise as also the tri-lateral NSA-level dialogue between India, Maldives and Sri Lanka lay the ghost of the Yameen era to rest.

Relations with Nepal

  • Inauguration of first cross-border petroleum pipeline: In September last year, India and Nepal jointly inaugurated South Asia’s first cross-border petroleum products pipeline from Motihari in India to Amlekhgunj in Nepal.
  • Prioritising the rebuilding of houses: India is also prioritising the rebuilding of houses in Gorkha and Nuwakot districts, with “Build Back Better” as the guiding principle in keeping with Modi’s clarion call for a Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI).
  • Role played by geography: Geography plays a determining role in creating inter-dependence.
    • Even as Nepal, like other South Asian countries, seeks closer ties with China, there is a much better appreciation today that India’s role as a key economic and developmental partner is unique and indispensable.

Relations with Bangladesh

  • Model partnership: India’s relations with Bangladesh under Modi and Sheikh Hasina have evolved into a model partnership, consolidated by-
    • High-level exchanges.
    • Mutual trust and-
    • Enhanced cooperation on security matters.
  • Border firing incidents: Incidents of border firing, though rare, have an adverse fall-out on public perception and need to be handled with sensitivity.

Relations with Bhutan

  • The India-Bhutan friendship runs deep, with growing cooperation in the vital hydro-power sector providing it a fresh impetus.
    • Notably, the centrepiece Mangdechhu project (750 MW) was completed on schedule last year.
  • RuPay card in Bhutan: The introduction of the RuPay card in Bhutan and elsewhere in the neighbourhood will further cement economic and people-to-people ties.

Relations with Myanmar

  • Security cooperation: When India shortly hands over to Myanmar the INS Sindhuvir, a Kilo Class submarine, it will propel security cooperation to a higher pedestal.
    • Cross-border strike in Myanmar: Close coordination with Myanmar was evident earlier in the cross-border strike on insurgents by Indian forces in 2015.

Unrealised potential of South Asia

  • South Asiasome figures: has 1.8 billion people and a combined GDP of nearly $3.47 trillion, with India’s economy the largest by far.
  • South Asia has great potential but has been held back by Pakistan.
    • Hindrance for cooperation with Afghanistan: Pakistan has not only denied India and Afghanistan the overland transit route for trade, but has also thwarted Modi’s efforts to place at centre stage the common struggle against poverty, illiteracy and natural disasters.

Cooperation within SAARC: Pakistan has held to ransom cooperation within SAARC by raising extraneous matters, perpetuating terrorism and rejecting the ineluctable logic of intra-South Asian trade, which remains abysmally poor.

  • Pakistan opt-out of satellite project: Islamabad decided to opt-out of the SAARC satellite project proposed by India, and it was finally launched in 2017 without Pakistan’s participation.
  • Motor Vehicle Agreement: Pakistan also played the role of a spoiler at the 18th SAARC Summit in November 2014, preventing progress on the proposed Motor Vehicle Agreement for the regulation of passenger and cargo vehicular traffic amongst SAARC member states.
  • Implications for Afghanistan: Pakistan’s intransigence on connectivity impairs Afghanistan’s ability to link up with other countries in South Asia.
    • The air corridor between India and Afghanistan cannot cater to the full potential of trade ties.
    • Sustainability of Chabahar port: Recent tensions between the US and Iran have cast a shadow on the sustainability of Chabahar port as an alternative maritime supply route to Afghanistan at a crucial juncture in its history.
    • India’s role in Afghanistan: India’s proactive role in recent years in building much-needed infrastructure and capacities in Afghanistan is widely recognised.
    • Deepened defence cooperation: Defence cooperation too has deepened under Modi, with India dropping its traditional coyness in such matters.
    • Much more may have to be done, though, to help Afghanistan achieve stability through economic prosperity.
    • Afghanistan’s true destiny lies with South Asia.

Key aspects of Neighbourhood First Policy

  • Response to security challenges: Neighbourhood First involves India’s willingness to respond to security challenges with new grit.
  • Humanitarian assistance: It also involves for India to be an enthusiastic responder in providing humanitarian assistance and conducting disaster relief operations in Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the extended neighbourhood.
  • Developmental assistance: Even more important is the steady progress made by India to expand developmental assistance and improve project execution based on collaborative partnerships.
    • India’s developmental assistance to six South Asian countries was over Rs 21,100 crore. 

Progress on BIMSTEC

  • BIMSTEC, the other regional grouping, has done well.
  • Participation in disaster Management Exercise: In February this year, delegates and rescue teams from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar enthusiastically participated in disaster management exercises conducted at Ramachandi Beach at Puri in Odisha.
  • Cross-border electricity grid: The signing of the MoU on BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection at the fourth BIMSTEC Summit, attended by all seven nations in Kathmandu in August 2018, provides a fillip to cross-border electricity trade.
  • India’s focus on BIMSTEC and its Act East Policy have served to highlight India’s key role in promoting cooperative growth and development in several parts of South Asia.


In a world increasingly characterised by a “my country first” approach, India has endeavoured to harness the impulse for regional cooperation in a spirit of generosity, without insisting on reciprocity, to realise the motto of Security And Growth For All In The Region (SAGAR).




Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Sagarmatha Sambaad


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC, Sagarmatha Sambaad

Mains level : Fading relevance of SAARC


Nepal has invited the PMs of India and Pakistan along with several other heads of government and heads of state for the Sagarmatha Sambaad.

Sagarmatha Sambaad

  • Sagarmatha Sambaad is a multi-stakeholder, permanent global dialogue forum initiated by the Government of Nepal.
  • It is scheduled to be held biennially in Nepal.
  • The Sambaad (dialogue) is named after the world’s tallest mountain Sagarmatha (Mount Everest).
  • The Everest is also a symbol of friendship and is meant to promote the notions of common good and collective well-being of humanity.
  • The first episode of the Sambaad is scheduled to be held from 2 to 4 April 2020 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Nepal).
  • The theme of the first Sambaad is “Climate Change, Mountains and the Future of Humanity.”


  • This is the first ever multi-stakeholder dialogue and a biggest diplomatic initiative in Nepal’s recent history.
  • India and Pakistan have been caught up in a cycle of hostility, which had prevented Islamabad from hosting the SAARC Summit in 2016.
  • The Kathmandu event aims to draw all the SAARC leaders and provide an opportunity to break the ice.
  • India had accused Pakistan of cross border terrorism while boycotting the Islamabad summit leading to its cancellation.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[Op-ed snap]The new worry of depleting diplomatic capital


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : India and its neighborhood-relations.


India’s recent actions at home like the decision to amend Article 370, or the CAA 2019, may take a toll on its international relations.

Effects on the relation with the U.S. and Europe:

  • In the U.S. bipartisan support for India had been the norm for at least two decades.
  • The dwindling of Democrat support was evident early on during the “Howdy Modi” event in September 2019.
  • In that event, only three out of the two dozen lawmakers at the event were from the Democratic Party.
  • In the weeks that followed the event, the State Department and several bipartisan committees have issued statements of concern over continued detentions in Kashmir and the CAA.
  • They also held hearings in the U.S. Congress, and even referred to Kashmir in the annual Foreign Appropriations Act for 2020.
  • The same issue found a voice in the U.K. parliament.
  • In the European Parliament, there was also discussion on Kashmir.
  • Kashmir became a campaign talking point between Labour and Conservative candidates in the U.K. elections.

Deterioration in relations with Bangladesh and the neighbourhood

  • In the neighbourhood, Pakistan is predictably angry.
  • While Afghanistan is more muted.
  • The real damage has been done to ties with Bangladesh.
  • In the last decade, Dhaka and New Delhi had worked hard on building connectivity, opening energy routes, trade and developing travel links.
  • Bangladesh is upset for being clubbed together with Afghanistan and Pakistan on the issue of treatment of minorities.
  • At the same time, Bangladesh’s repeated requests for help on the Rohingya refugee issue were unheeded.
  • The OIC plans for a special meet on Kashmir and the CAA in April 2020.
  • If Bangladesh which defends India at the OIC feels that India’s actions are discriminatory, Arab countries could also become more vocal.

Possible fallouts

  • The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has already recommended sanctions be considered against Home Minister.
  • In the U.S. Congress lawmakers can effectively block defence sales to India, or pursue sanctions on the S-400 missile system purchase from Russia.
  • On the international stage, the United Nations and its affiliated bodies could provide a platform for India to be targeted.
  • At FATF, India hopes to blacklist Pakistan for terror financing.
  • Break in ties with Turkey and Malaysia for their comment at UN on Kashmir could also lead them to veto India’s position at the FATF.
  • Unrest in the country could lead to a lower number of foreign visitors and visit cancellation/postponement by leaders.
  • All this also takes a toll on its diplomatic resources that have been diverted for much of the year in firefighting negative international opinion.


  • The government must consider the impact of its domestic actions on India’s diplomatic capital.
  • This capital is a complex combination of the goodwill the country has banked on over decades as a democratic, secular, stable power, bilateral transactions it can conduct in the present, and the potential it holds for future ties, particularly in terms of its economic and geopolitical strengths.

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