CONTEXT The year 2020 marked the sixth year since the leaders of the eight nations that make up the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) were able to meet. India’s position on crossborder terrorism from Pakistan that led New Delhi to refuse to attend the SAARC summit in 2016 in Islamabad, is still in place.
WHAT IS SAARC?
- SAARC was set up in 1985 as an organization to build a connected and integrated South Asia with the larger aim of promoting the development and progress of all countries in the region.
- It 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.
- India is the foundational member of the grouping and enjoys excellent bilateral relations with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, as per our “Neighbourhood First’ policy”.
IMPLICATIONS OF DYSFUNCTIONING OF SAARC
- 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 similar 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.
INDIA NEEDS TO REVIEW ITS POSITION ON SAARC
- 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.
NEED FOR REVIVAL OF SAARC?
- 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, therefore needs to be studied comprehensively.
- 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.
- Also there has been an 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.
- The World Bank has suggested that South Asian countries work as a collective to set standards for labour from the region, and also to promote 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”.
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 (except Bhutan), all of whom are Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partners of China will be hard placed to help individually.
CONCLUSION 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.