The Modi government is changing the way it conducts its foreign policy, entering into regional pacts while leaving out Pakistan that New Delhi sees as a reluctant player in achieving Saarc’s goal of greater integration.
India has gone ahead and signed agreements on roads, ports, power and education with South Asian countries to build and strengthen ties, circumventing the Pakistan hurdle.
“For long it was a Pakistan-obsessed regional policy, for that matter foreign policy. Time has come to think out of the box and move ahead,” a government source said.
These plans were not just aimed at greater cooperation but had strategic intent as well, sources said, citing the example of Chabahar Port in Iran.
The signing of the BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) corridor agreement in the Bhutanese capital Thimpu on June 15 is a shot in the arm for Delhi’s regional plan.
A similar pact would be signed with Afghanistan in the coming months. The India-Myanmar-Thailand road connectivity plan would be completed by year-end and would eventually be integrated with the BBIN corridor, sources said.
“This will be a big boost to sub-regional connectivity and a major feat in India’s ‘Act East policy’,” an official said.
Pakistan had refused to sign a Saarc agreement on motor vehicle and rail connectivity at a summit in Kathmandu in November.
The underlining theme, sources said, was “Pakistan not holding up plans for greater regional integration” by letting neighbours join in when they want to.
Founded in 1985, the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Corporation remains one of the least integrated groupings in the world.
Less than 5% of the region’s global trade takes place among member countries and less than 10% of the region’s commerce is conducted in the Saarc Free Trade Area.
India was encouraged by response from neighbours like Bangladesh and Nepal who would find sub-regional framework more helpful than fighting domestic political objection to signing “India-dictated” bilateral pacts, sources said.
India is finalising a tripartite transit agreement to allow Indian goods to enter Iran through Chabahar port on the country’s southeastern coast bordering Afghanistan. Goods will be moved through road and rail to Afghanistan as well as Central Asia.
“We have a container terminal at Mundra, which is some 550 nautical miles from Chabahar. It’s nearest to Chabahar and once the port is ready, container vessels can reach Iran in approximately two days,” a shipping ministry official said.
Though it attended a meeting on plans for a dedicated Saarc satellite Monday, Pakistan has not been too keen. Officials said the project, which aims to boost telemedicine and communication in the region, would meet the 2016 deadline.
New Delhi, said sources, would stay away from a Saarc gathering of transport secretaries in July “unless Pakistan spells out what it exactly wants from the meet”.
After Pakistan kept member countries waiting till last moment at Kathmandu for a grid plan, India has again gone ‘local’.
“When PM (Narendra Modi) was in Bangladesh, he said India would contribute a major way to Dhaka’s plans of meeting 24,000MW power demands in 2021,” a source said.
India could allow countries such as Bhutan to route power to Bangladesh through India.
But Pakistan, the second largest Saarc country after India, can hold back new initiatives of the grouping as the forum works with consensus. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka are the other members.
India will also need Pakistan’s help for Afghanistan road plan. “Well, when things are moving quite well on the eastern front, we can hope things will fall in place on the western front too,” an official said.