SAARC should be allowed to drift into oblivion
It is now more than 30 years old and has remarkably little to show for its efforts.Still, SAARC remains the only all-South Asian organisation — so keeping it in cold storage until an Indo-Pakistani thaw makes senseanalysis Updated: Feb 22, 2017 08:25 IST
The SAARC is sinking into irrelevance. Again. It was a recognition that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has entered yet another trough that led many at the recent regional speaker’s summit in Indore to call for an end to the member’s veto and other radical reforms.
However, whatever SAARC’s fate, subcontinental togetherness matters a lot more today for India than it did in the past. The reason: the efforts by China to serve as the new glue for South Asia. SAARC may be in coma, but other Indian-driven efforts at South Asian unity are being revived. Hence New Delhi’s renewed interest in a number of regional acronyms like the ungainly named BIMSTEC, BBIN and even SASEC.
SAARC is now over 30 years old and has remarkably little to show for its efforts. The most obvious reason is that India and Pakistan have for years used it as a duelling ground against each other. After years of fast economic growth, India is now so dominant that Pakistan has given up its earlier attempts to assemble a SAARC bloc of its own. Today, Islamabad merely bats defensively. SAARC has become a test match being played to a draw.
As India’s foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, complained, “If you say that I will be a regional member but I will not allow regional trade, I will not allow regional connectivity, will not allow regional motorways, I will not allow regional railways, then what is it about?”
Pakistan has been unusually obstreperous, even by its relatively low standards, in SAARC. The conspiratorial might argue that there is a purpose in its bloody-mindedness. South Asian regional cooperation has today become a Great Game of Connectivity ever since China began rolling out its Belt-Road Initiative. If SAARC moves in freeing up motor vehicle movement are blocked, that leaves regional transport all the more dependent on what China does.
Right now, Beijing is just pouring concrete and laying tarmac. There is of course the economic corridor that would tie-up Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are plans for a web connecting Bangladesh to Southeast Asia. Beijing has also been dangling the idea of railheads into Nepal and widened highways into Bhutan. If all of this were to come to fruition, most of the SAARC countries would be better connected to China than to each other. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, began readying the commercial paperwork that would have to overlay the physical infrastructure when he visited Bangladesh recently and signed 26 agreements with Dhaka, including one on furthering the Belt-Road Initiative.
India faces a quandary. With Pakistan having put SAARC to the sword and given India’s own protectionist trade policies and poor infrastructure record, India could eventually find itself partly isolated from the other countries in the subcontinent. This sounds slightly impossible in regards to, say, Nepal. But Bangladesh officially already trades almost as much with China as it does with India. At the very least, India needs to make sure it is an alternative logistics hub to whatever Beijing is putting together.
SAARC is and should be allowed to drift into the doldrums. Some Indian scholars have argued it should be disbanded. That would severely dent India’s regional image. Among other things, it would raise Big Brother bogeys in Colombo and Sri Lanka. These two governments founded SAARC to allow them to engage India in a forum where they would have equal voting power. SAARC also makes economic sense. The Asian Development Bank has shown that intra-regional trade in South Asia is barely a third of its actual potential.
In addition, at a time when global multilateralism is under threat from America First, European Union Last and China Uber Alles, regional powers like India are being forced to seek stability in their immediate region. It is a key reason Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been touring the Indian Ocean, making forays in the troubled waters of the Persian Gulf and wooing littoral Africa. SAARC remains the only all-South Asian organisation so keeping it in cold storage until an Indo-Pakistani thaw makes sense. The stars are crossed for regional bodies these days anyway. China has reduced the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to rubble and the obituaries are being written for the mighty EU.
The real test for India, however, is whether it can make something of the moribund BIMSTEC or BBIN. This will not be easy for a New Delhi which has a commerce ministry that largely believes in economic non-cooperation and which has practised border development with the idea of blocking foreign trucks and buses. This will have to change as concrete moves in regional cooperation are a geopolitical necessity.