SAARC’s inability to have regular meetings has provided further evidence of its demise
The last summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), was held in Kathmandu in November 2014. It was the last to take place in recent times, and the only one that has happened since Narendra Modi became prime minister of India. Despite the established precedent that such summits should be held every two years, there is no real indication that another SAARC summit is on the horizon.
SAARC’s inability to have regular meetings has provided further evidence of its demise.
Established in 1985, SAARC has been highly idealistic: to improve quality of life, accelerate economic growth, strengthen collective self-reliance, and contribute to mutual trust, understanding, and appreciation of one another’s problems, among others. However, some principles of SAARC limited its potency. For example, SAARC has to make a consentaneous decision and exclude ‘contentious’ issues from the deliberations. This, coupled with the Indo-centric nature of the region and the India-Pakistan rivalry, made the institution powerless from the get-go.
SAARC as a forum did make some progress in some phases. Historically, it has been part of South Asian regional identity. Its five regional centres focused on agriculture, energy, culture, health, and disaster management. The South Asian University, based in New Delhi, was established in 2010 as well.
However, South Asia is among the least integrated regions in the world. Intra-regional trade accounts for five per cent of total trade. Further classifications, in fact, are worth defining. For instance, Bangladesh-India trade accounts for ninety per cent of Dhaka’s total trade. Its trade with five other countries — Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka — together accounts for just two per cent of the country’s total regional trade. It is ironic that for India it is twenty per cent cheaper to trade with Brazil, which is on the opposite side of the globe, than with its neighbouring countries in South Asia. The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) has not made any apparent development yet. That is why, for all practical purposes, SAARC has been defunct since 2014.
Pakistan was to host the summit in 2016, but it was stalled after India refused to participate following the attack in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir that New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based extremists. Since the attack in Uri in 2016, the Indian government has subscribed to isolate countries supporting extremism – an apparent reference to Pakistan. As a result, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in its election manifesto in 2019 did not include SAARC as a forum for regional cooperation. Instead, the manifesto said, ‘To forward our ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, we will extensively leverage forums such as BIMSTEC [Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral and Economic Cooperation], to accelerate regional coordination and economic cooperation with countries in our neighbourhood.”
With this, India made clear its disinterest in SAARC, and thus indirectly announced its ultimate death. Unsurprisingly, India’s arch-rival, Pakistan, is not a member of BIMSTEC.
Sri Lanka and Nepal have been pressing for a SAARC summit, though. Yet, without Indian participation and interest, the SAARC cannot move forward. Additionally, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has added another layer of insecurity to SAARC members.
To find other alternatives, India has already gotten closer to regional and subregional organisations such as BIMSTEC and the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal.
For quite a while, the region has been facing common threats, especially on non-traditional security issues such as climate change, natural disasters, food and energy security, and mass migration. The realised trade is very negligible compared to the trade potential.
Although, a number of key achievements under SAARC included a free trade agreement, a development fund, a food bank and an arbitration council, but as SAARC languishes, these developments will soon disappear from the diplomatic limelight.
China’s presence in South Asia’s regional institutions is also not a new concept. At the 13th SAARC summit in Dhaka in 2005, when India proposed including Afghanistan as a full member, Nepal proposed admitting China as an observer. The acceptance of both these proposals created a new reality.
With time, China’s response, though muted, indicated it was more than willing to take part in the institutional structure of South Asia. While the Manmohan Singh administration (2004-2014) seemed willing to engage with this new reality, the government led by Modi, after an initial invitation to all SAARC leaders to his government’s inauguration, has not.
Perhaps, the biggest agenda for SAARC, if it functioned normally in contemporary times, should have been climate change. The single most visible impact of climate change is on waters, and the key countries with which India shares its major rivers are Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. All of these transboundary rivers are currently facing some crisis or other.
India’s campaign on the Indus River system, and Pakistan’s associated concerns, have elevated the matter to such a crisis that the Indus Waters Treaty, considered one of the most successful transboundary water treaties in the world, is now scuppered.
With Nepal, issues surrounding the Mahakali, Koshi and Gandaki river basins have bedevilled relations since the countries’ independence, and as climate change leads to higher incidences of floods and droughts, this is likely to increase.
If the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is to get involved in South Asia’s climate change issues, it will inevitably become involved in its transboundary water issues. It is worth noting that when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Dhaka in 2016, the first visit by a Chinese head of state in thirty years, he stated: ‘We drink from the same rivers.’ Four years later, rebuffed by India’s dithering on the Teesta’s waters, Bangladesh requested China to redevelop the river basin.
If the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is to get involved in climate change issues, it will inevitably become involved in South Asia’s transboundary water issues. Key transboundary rivers, like the Indus and the Brahmaputra, will probably give China a major locus standi.
With SAARC withering, and neither BIMSTEC nor any other regional institution seriously capable of handling climate and water issues, this power vacuum will inevitably lead to a greater role for China in managing climate and hydro diplomacy in South Asia.
Naveed Qazi is an author of nine books, and editor of Globe Upfront. He can be reached at [email protected]