Can SAARC be revived? - Hindustan Times
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Can SAARC be revived?

ByCchavi Vasisht
Mar 15, 2024 03:53 PM IST

This article is authored by Cchavi Vasisht, research associate, Centre for Neighbourhood Studies, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.

At a recent interactive session at a think tank, external affairs minister S Jaishankar, expressed scepticism about the revival of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) due to Pakistan's continued support for terrorism, which he referred to as part of its "toolkit". He noted that the SAARC has been ineffective since 2016, with its biennial summits not taking place since the last one in Kathmandu in 2014, particularly after the scheduled 2016 summit in Islamabad was cancelled following several countries' refusal to participate due to a terrorist attack in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir.

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These remarks have revived an old discussion among scholars about whether SAARC is dysfunctional or not. He also commented on the progress made under the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) despite challenges such as the situation in Myanmar. Such statements clearly suggest a shift in focus away from SAARC towards other regional cooperative frameworks.

SAARC was established in 1985 with an objective of building a connected and integrated South Asia. Despite being in existence for 39 years, it has made slow progress. Last week, the 59th Session of the SAARC Programming Committee took place at the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu, marking the first in-person session after a four-year hiatus. Nepal, holding the chair of the SAARC Programming Committee, played host, with foreign secretary Sewa Lamsal as the chief guest. While Lamsal emphasised the importance of regular meetings for SAARC charter bodies and Nepal's commitment to addressing the challenges facing SAARC for regional peace and prosperity.

India continues to support various initiatives in the SAARC framework to achieve closer cooperation in diverse areas. Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi invited leaders of all SAARC countries to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014, and conveyed his intention of infusing new life into SAARC. India also extended the National Knowledge Network (NKN) to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Bhutan, launched the South Asian Satellite (SAS), established the South Asian University (SAU) and hosted the Interim Unit of the SAARC Disaster Management Centre. During the Covid-19 crises, PM Modi revived SAARC, by conducting a video conference and creating a Covid-19 Emergency Fund.

However, the functionality of SAARC is challenged by two important factors – the India-Pakistan animosity and lack of regional integration. India-Pakistan rifts have been due to Pakistan’s support to terrorist activities. This is the point minister Jaishankar emphasises. He blames Pakistan's alleged support for terrorism for creating an atmosphere of distrust that prevents cooperation, be it the Uri attacks or Balakot strikes. India and Pakistan face historical tensions and the ongoing border disputes further strain relations, making regional collaboration difficult.

Further, SAARC faces challenges in economic cooperation. It has been stated that trade between member States remains low, with estimates suggesting only 5% of their potential is realised. This indicates a lack of infrastructure, trade agreements, and economic policies that would facilitate the movement of goods and services within the region. Further, political tensions make it difficult to establish economic ties. Distrust discourages member States from investing in regional infrastructure or trade agreements. Low economic integration, in turn, weakens the incentive for political cooperation and it becomes a vicious cycle. To revive SAARC, both political and economic aspects need to be addressed.

Taking advantage of the situation, China has established a huge economic and political presence in the region. Through its Belt and Road Initiative and China-South Asia Cooperation Forum’ (CSACF), China is increasing its clout in the region with its mega infrastructure projects and has emerged as a leading trading partner. Even during Covid times, China launched the China-South Asia Emergency Supplies Reserve and Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Centre. Moving forward, China has influenced the domestic politics of countries like Nepal and Maldives. Finally, China is pushing forward its military diplomatic relations with some South Asian nations. Recently, China announced that military delegations visited Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives. China became an observer member of SAARC in 2005, and since then, it has been pushing to become a full member of the organisation.

Realising the dysfunctionality of SAARC and rise in China’s, India has been rebalancing its foreign policy by focusing other regional organisations. BIMSTEC is considered as an alternative to SAARC. More recently, India went ahead to form a stronger alliance with the United States (US)-led Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the US). However, can BIMSTEC replace SAARC? BIMSTEC’s focus is on the Bay of Bengal region, thus making it an inappropriate forum to engage all South Asian nations. There are also arguments that the BIMSTEC nations lack a common identity and history.

India's engagement with SAARC and its initiative to promote regional cooperation through various means signify a willingness to enhance regional connectivity and cooperation.

While BIMSTEC shows promise, it cannot entirely replace SAARC. They can complement each other to enhance cooperation between South Asia and Southeast Asia. Revitalising SAARC necessitates addressing both political and economic challenges. Enhancing trust among member States, particularly between India and Pakistan, and fostering economic integration are crucial. One way to infuse life in SAARC is to revive the process of South Asian economic integration. This could involve implementing existing trade agreements more effectively, investing in regional infrastructure, and creating an environment conducive to political cooperation. Although formidable, these challenges are not insurmountable if there is a collective will among SAARC members to move beyond historical grievances and leverage their shared history and cultural ties for regional prosperity.

This article is authored by Cchavi Vasisht, research associate, Centre for Neighbourhood Studies, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.

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