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The revival of SAARC will facilitate India’s neighbourhood policy in meeting the challenge of regional strategic encroachment by the expansionist Chinese regime.
China as part of its global expansionism is chipping away at India’s interests in South Asia.
Most South Asian nations are now largely dependent on China for imports despite geographical proximity to India.
China’s proximity to Pakistan is well known.
Nepal is moving closer to China for ideational and material reasons.
China has offered Bangladesh a tariff exemption of 97% on Bangladeshi products and has intensified its ties with Sri Lanka through massive investments.
The SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) includes the eight South Asian countries viz. India, Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
The SAARC was established with the signing of the SAARC Charter in Dhaka in 1985.
The Secretariat of the Association was set up in Kathmandu in 1987.
It aims to promote the economic development, regional integration and welfare of the people of South Asia.
SAARC is also one of the poorest regions of the world, ranking just second to the Sub-Saharan region in Africa.
Even with the presence of five of the world’s 20 megacities, it is the least urbanized region in the world with an urban population of about 27%.
After the deadly terror attack on the Indian security forces at Uri in 2016, India refused to engage with the SAARC.
The smaller countries in the region acknowledged Delhi’s deepening concerns on cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
However, they were also upset that the main forum for regional cooperation in South Asia had moved from a state of dysfunction to deep coma.
Recently, in March 2020, India pledged $10 million toward a COVID-19 emergency fund and put together a rapid response team of doctors and specialists for SAARC nations.
How to reinvigorate SAARC?
Several foreign policy experts argue that India’s strategic dealing with China has to begin with South Asia, so it is important to reinvigorate SAARC in this regard.
In a bid to isolate Pakistan internationally for its role in promoting terrorism, India has started investing in other regional instruments, such as BIMSTEC, as an alternative to SAARC.
However, BIMSTEC cannot replace SAARC for reasons such as lack of a common identity and history among all BIMSTEC members.
Moreover, BIMSTEC’s focus is on the Bay of Bengal region, thus making it an inappropriate forum to engage all South Asian nations.
South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world with intra-regional trade teetering at barely 5% of total South Asian trade, compared to 25% of intra-regional trade in the ASEAN region.
While South Asian countries have signed trade treaties, the lack of political will and trust deficit has prevented any meaningful movement.
As per World Bank, trade-in South Asia stands at $23 billion of an estimated value of $67 billion.
India should take the lead and work with its neighbours to slash the tariff and non-tariff barriers.
There’s a need to resuscitate the negotiations on a SAARC investment treaty, pending since 2007.
According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, intra-ASEAN investments constitute around 19% of the total investments in the region. The SAARC region can likewise benefit from higher intra-SAARC investment flows.
Deeper regional economic integration will create greater interdependence with India acquiring the central role, which, in turn, would serve India’s strategic interests too.
There are two major domestic challenges that India faces in revitalising SAARC.
First, there has been an unrelenting top-dressing of anti-Pakistan rhetoric and recurrent use of the ‘Bangladeshi migrant’ rhetoric.
Such majoritarian politics influence foreign policy and dents India’s soft power of being a liberal and secular democracy, and fuels an anti-India sentiment in India’s neighbourhood.
Second, the economic vision of the Modi government remains dubious for the trade potential in the region.
India’s move to cut down its dependence on imports signals a return to the economic philosophy of import substitution.
If this marks sliding back to protectionism, one is unsure if India will be interested in deepening South Asian economic integration.
India cannot afford to not harvest this opportunity, after having sowed the seeds of a New South Asia.
The leaders of SAARC should pool their best practices, share their experiences and coordinate their efforts to work together to solve regional issues with a view to its long-term economic and social consequences.
India must leave an assertive expression of its willingness to stabilise the region through cooperative mechanisms not being distracted by short-sighted ploys of Pakistan.
The revival of SAARC will facilitate India’s neighbourhood policy in meeting the challenge of regional strategic encroachment by China through its Belt and Road Initiative.
The tragedy of COVID-19 may provide an opportunity for India to demonstrate its compassionate face to secure a region at peace with itself.
This is an opportunity for India to establish its imprints over the region, and to secure an abiding partnership for SAARC countries' shared destiny.
India must demonstrate that it has the capacity, the political will to institutionalise and to lead a mutually beneficial cooperative regime in the region.
PM Narendra Modi did well by reaching out to SAARC leaders by COVID diplomacy earlier this year, but such flash in the pan moments won’t help without sustained engagement. For re-discovering the virtues of multilateralism, and for the group to attain its foundational purpose, there is a need for sustained regional cooperation initiatives.
Source: The Hindu.