SAARC will pay if revived

Mrinal K. Biswas

Of all India’s group participations South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc) looked most promising with economic development programmes in the hemisphere and increasing importance of the same in international politics.
South Asian Association of Regional Countries (Saarc) being essentially a trade bloc is now dwarfed by seemingly irreconcilable political clash between India and Pakistan threatening in the process the prospect of a broader unity of nation states which have long buried their colonial shackles. In contrast, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) continues to prosper.
Relations between two countries were soured at the very beginning of their Statehood. But the sub continental group formation was too advantageous a prospect for creation of Saarc with Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka while Afghanistan became a late comer. Asean’s success story was the guiding principle for Saarc forcing the Indo-Pak animosity in the back stage at the time of its inception in 1985.
But the 2016 September’s Uri (Kashmir) army camp terrorist attack prompting an Indian counter offensive brought down the curtain on Saarc. India engineered the summit meet boycott set for November 19 at Islamabad and Saarc “has been made ineffective due to the insecurity of one member (Pakistan),” said India’s foreign secretary S Jaishankar. Intra-bloc trade liberalization efforts have ceased as a consequence.
Pakistan’s intransigence at Saarc was evident even before that. The last summit at Kathmandu in November 2014 avoided a total failure by making Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to agree to sign the Saarc framework for energy. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attending the summit for the first time presented his government’s proposal for a regional power grid which got more than approving nods from all other leaders. Most of them disappointed at Pakistan’s negative attitude on three key agreements for connectivity and energy finally could persuade Nawaz Sharif to sign. This agreement was expected to improve power availability in the entire region by facilitating an integrated operation of the regional power grid.
Follow-up actions? Not in sight. Indeed, Jaishankar has blamed Pakistan for blocking connectivity measures within South Asia, including land transit to Afghanistan.  Alien factors not less to blame for upsetting the power balance and regional cooperation. Bejing is fast building a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is passing through Indian territory but Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), Indian objection notwithstanding. That China is more important to Pakistan than regional cooperation is no more a secret though China is allowed an observer status both in Saarc and Asean.
This is evident from Pakistan’s emphasize on the undergoing $54 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) originating in China’s Xinjiang province and terminating at Pakistan’s Gwadar port enabling Bejing  a land route through Indian claimed territory (PoK) and Balochistan of Pakistan to get to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea in the western Pakistan part of Asia.
Though Paskistan has thrown down a spanner to India’s bid for a sphere of influence in South Asia the blanket withdrawal from the Islamabad Saarc summit by other member countries has exposed the isolation of Pakistan in this zone above the Indian Ocean. Pakistan is a loser though India cannot afford to see SAARC remain ineffective in the long run.
Because South Asia with 1.6 billion people, with $1400 billion GDP and $886 per capita income is a huge market which draws good attention from non-Saarc countries. In this India with over $1000 billion economy constitutes nearly 80 per cent of the economic space. Maldives, Bhutan and Sri Lanka have a higher percentage of trade to GDP ratio, their economies are too small to contribute to any significant amount of the region’s trade. Slower progress compared to Asean nevertheless,  this bloc made some progress by framing South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (Sapta) in 1995, South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta) in 2006, South Asian University (Sau) 2010 and Saarc Development Fund(SDF) in 2010. A Saarc food bank is on the line though energy and connectivity in the region have been put on board in the meantime. All these subsidiary bodies are not working to their full potential, though. Intra-regional trade went up to 5.47 per cent in 2005 but fell to 4.31 per cent in the 2008 world recession period without any let up since then.
There is no gain saying the fact that India will gain along with others in the Saarc if and when this regional bloc gets on its wheel, Pakistan’s refusal to accept India’s primacy notwithstanding. One may recall Singapore’s father figure Lee Kuan Yew saying that India’s technological capability and large economic base makes her amply fit for turning Saarc an effective collective body and together with Asean can look China in the eye. Reality of the situation had made J R Jayewardene of Sri Lanka to observe at Dhaka’s 1985 SAARC inauguration that India being larger than all the rest combined in the region can “by deeds and words create the confidence among us...”
India has become stronger since then by becoming the third largest economy and a large player in international politics. Effective revival of SAARC will serve India’s interest better if she can make herself less bothered by Pakistan’s bad neighbourly attitude.

Monday, 6 March, 2017