The invitation to heads of BIMSTEC countries (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) for the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi’s second government on 30 May almost sounded the death-knell for SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). In five years, SAARC was allowed to die a natural death.
Recall Modi had laid the red carpet for SAARC leaders in his first swearing-in as Prime Minister in 2014. In the second term of his government, he had replaced it with BIMSTEC. It is not just symbolic, but a heavily substantial change. It is matter of time, SAARC is administered the euthanasia by South Asian leaders, and buried.
The terminal illness of SAARC had begun quite some time ago, but was diagnosed when India as a member of BRICS invited BIMSTEC in 2016 to Goa, as a part of BRICS outreach efforts in the developing world. In the same year, SAARC suffered another setback as the 19th Summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan, was suspended sin-e-die. The member countries declined to attend the Summit in the absence of a conducive environment, in particular, the scene of insecurity created by Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in the region.
Admittedly, SAARC process has been stalled by the India-Pakistan hostility which shows no sign of abatement. Although SAARC does not discuss bilateral issues; the climate of confidence is cluttered, and the India-Pakistan animosity spills over to the functioning of SAARC, and paralyse it. The new member of SAARC Afghanistan also suffers from Pakistan’s machinations and proxy aggression on its territory.
New Delhi, perhaps, wisely decided that South Asian cooperation cannot proceed with a hostile, obdurate, and terrorist-infested Pakistan. It decided to isolate Pakistan by building up BIMSTEC, which includes five SAARC members and two members of ASEAN – Myanmar and Thailand. These two members will provide access to New Delhi to penetrate the ASEAN territory. Three members that are left out of BIMSTEC are Pakistan, Maldives and Afghanistan. New Delhi is resetting ties with Maldives after a pro-India government took over in the island country. And India has deep defence and development relations with Afghanistan.
New Delhi has thus managed to isolate Pakistan in the South Asian region. But talking about SAARC, which started in 1985 with good intentions of some of the South Asian leaders, shall we sing the ‘Swan Song’? Like the aphorism goes “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, SAARC was doomed from the beginning. The leaders failed to foresee the complications in its functioning due to the internecine enmity between India and Pakistan.
Perhaps, the leaders had thought that one could talk about collective good by sidelining the bilateral issues. Little did they realise, the ‘Kashmir issue’ between India and Pakistan, so emotive and volatile, could engulf SAARC. That is exactly what happened, the smoke rising from India-Pakistan fire has blinded the path for SAARC. Since the fire is not likely to extinguish, it is better to stop the journey of SAARC, and rather withdraw it from any movement. That said, let us draw the trajectory of SAARC until 2014, and examine if it could have had a chance to survive despite India-Pakistan hostility.
SAARC envisioned by Zia ur Rehman of Bangladesh in 1970s was shrouded in mistrust and suspicion. New Delhi was reluctant to join as it was seen to be a pro-American grouping to counter Soviet Union with which India had close ties. But members had lackadaisical approach to it, the institutions took too long to develop, and mechanisms were weak to take swift decisions. Since 1985, summits have been postponed 11 times for political reasons either bilateral or internal.
The foremost reason for failure in addition to India-Pakistan conundrum is the problem of implementation. A number of regional agreements have been signed, but they have not been implemented. Quite often, Pakistan throws a spanner. For instance SAARC-MVA agreement during the 18th summit at Kathmandu could not be implemented because of Pakistan’s reluctance. Similarly, Islamabad objected to the satellite project proposed by New Delhi. It has been established that Pakistan did not allow any SAARC agenda to proceed.
The second area of failure is the common security. The member countries did not have a common perception of threat. While India appealed to Pakistan about cross-border terrorism, the latter was indifferent.
Third, SAARC did not have any conflict management mechanism. The leaders envisaged a conflict-free situation to promote cooperation. But any meaningful cooperation has to be preceded by conflict resolution. Consequently, in absence of mediation for conflict resolution, disputes among the member countries affected the consensus-building and stunted the integration process.
Fourth, in view of the slow progress of SAARC, member countries turned to bilateralism. That in-turn hampered the growth of SAARC. Bilateralism should contribute to multilateralism, not substitute it.
Fifth, SAARC did not receive adequate attention in terms of resources, and encouragement of non-governmental players. Notably, the European Union, which is by far the best example of regional integration despite its current troubles, was built by movement of four elements – capital, people, goods and services. There were no substantive movement of any of these amongst SAARC countries.
There were heavy visa restrictions for people in and out of Pakistan, only India and Nepal have had visa free movement. Goods were also heavily taxed or smuggled; capital and services also did not have hassle-free movement. South Asian Free Trade Association, SAFTA touted as an example of regional cooperation did not improve multilateral trade in the region.
Obviously, before the agreements are made and signed, confidence building measures among the contracting parties are put in place. SAARC heavily lacked in this area, and was bound to fail. On the other hand, BIMSTEC founded in 1997, has been pervaded by an atmosphere of goodwill and friendship. That will stand it in good stead despite, as critics point out, BIMSTEC’s achievements has been less than impressive. It should be noted that BIMSTEC was operating in the shadow of SAARC, hence grew slowly. With SAARC being sounded the death-knell, BIMSTEC will move faster as a new platform.
A word or two about the status of regional cooperation and the fate of BIMSTEC; there is renewed doubt about regional cooperation as the preferred mechanism for peace and prosperity of participating countries, mainly in the wake of Brexit and US withdrawing from trans-pacific partnership in 2017.
Arguably, Brexit and Donald Trump are considered to be aberrations in normal functioning of democracy, as they remind us of Plato and Aristotle’s caution about democratic politics. However, democracy renews and self-rectifies itself. These ‘abnormal times’ will pass, and regional cooperation leading to healthy multilateralism will stay. Therefore, BIMSTEC and such regional initiatives have a future for peace & prosperity of their people.—INFA
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