Modi's gesture is welcome, but SAARC has yet to achieve much of its potential

In the multilateral narrative, Saarc has become notorious for the underachievement of its stated goals in spite of 17 summits.

shreerupa

Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | June 11, 2014



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If ominous signs are anything to go by, the laudations coming in for Narendra Modi’s gesture of inviting the Saarc leaders forebode well, at least in the realm of international relations. The high-decibel discourse has been a loyal ally of Modi from his Gujarat days through the campaigning to his swearing-in ceremony. Could the gesture be seen as an extension of this proclivity, or is it reflective of a mature foreign policy to be adopted by the new government? It is perhaps too early to comment either way.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), a multilateral founded by an initiative of Bangladesh in 1985, with founder-members Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (Afghanistan joined in 2007, with India proposing its name) had a difficult birth. To cite an instance, the Soviet Union was friendly with India while its rival America had Pakistan on its side. This overshadowing of inter-state disputes casting a pall on the healthy functioning of the regional multilateral was to become the fate of Saarc for most of its adult life.

Some of the difficult situations for India in Saarc cooperation have been the Siachen conflict, the intensification of Kashmir insurgency from 1989, the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998, the Kargil war in 1999 and the tense situation between the Sri Lankan forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif suggested that Saarc should start discussing bilateral problems of the member states (hinting at the Kashmir issue), which was rejected by the then prime minister, IK Gujral, citing the Saarc charter that excludes discussion on bilateral concerns. The exclusion of bilateral talks, which was brought about so the association does not get caught up in inter-state quagmires and allows Saarc to function independently over and above bilateral concerns, has ironically become the greatest hindrance for Saarc.

In the multilateral narrative, Saarc has become notorious for the underachievement of its stated goals in spite of 17 summits. Intra-Saarc trade is still negligible, restrained by tariff barriers and lack of transport infrastructure. Local businessmen prefer investing outside of the neighbourhood while foreign companies don’t invest enough in South Asia. Until 2012, the restrictions in trade had limited the Saarc trade to 10% of its original potential. South Asia Free Trade Area Agreement (Safta, the successor of South Asia Preferential Trade Agreement or Sapta), which came into force in 2006, is far from achieving any kind of strong economic integration and the South Asia economic union is still a gleam in the eyes of the member-states.

Also, India is viewed as somewhat of a hegemon among the Saarc countries, which has proved to be a hurdle in regional cooperation. To configure a regional balance of power, Nepal proposed inclusion of China (which presently has the observer status) in 2010 which has been vetoed by India (Saarc stipulates that all decisions be unanimous). China is already investing heavily in Sri Lanka and Pakistan and its influence has grown rapidly in the subcontinent. India fears that the other member-states might gang up against her, adding to the mutual distrust. However, owing to its size and economic prowess, India does have a disproportionate responsibility to ensure stability in the region and cannot let insecurity dominate its neighbourhood policy.

However, Saarc is not all a story of lost cause. There has been some trickle-down salutary effect of the framework of cooperation on bilateral relations. Leaders who would otherwise not be able to meet owing to domestic constraints use the Saarc platform for bilateral discussions away from the public glare. Moreover, disputes between bigger Saarc countries have allowed Britain and America to emerge as power brokers; a role that could easily and perhaps more proficiently be taken up by the smaller Saarc countries.

Saarc could perhaps take some lessons from the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). The initial meetings of Asean were filled with distrust and hostility. Within two decades of robust regional multilateral diplomacy, the chemistry of the Asean meetings has improved tremendously.
Economic diplomacy will not thrive if the trading partners do not trust each other. Saarc missed an opportunity in the early stages for a clear political commitment to economic development. While a conjectural analysis of the motivations for inviting Saarc member-states might prove to be a prolonged game, Modi’s swearing-in ceremony and the subsequent bilaterals can be a healthy step towards meaningful Saarc dialogues.

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