Is There A Future Left for SAARC?
NEW DELHI: India’s decision to pull out of the SAARC summit scheduled for November in Islamabad, with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan following suit, has once again raised questions about the relevance and future of the multilateral body and South Asian cooperation.
India announced Tuesday that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not be participating in the SAARC summit this year, with the Uri attack having cemented this decision. It may be recalled, however, that the PM’s participation in the summit was a question mark even before the Uri attack. Both India and Pakistan have used the SAARC forum as a punching bag for deteriorating ties. After the Pathankot attack, Islamabad did not send a representative to India to extend an invitation to the November summit, as is custom. As relations continued to plummet, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley cancelled his involvement in the SAARC FM meeting, thereby making PM Modi’s participation an even bigger question mark.
Uri, however, seemed to be the final straw, with India’s decision to pull out of the SAARC summit being followed by Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Afghanistan issued a statement saying “Due to increased level of violence and fighting as a result of imposed terrorism on Afghanistan, H.E. the President of Afghanistan, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, with his responsibilities as the commander in-chief will be fully engaged, and will not be able to attend the Summit.”
Bangladesh, meanwhile, explained its decision to back out of the summit on increasing interference by Islamabad in Dhaka’s internal affairs. A letter sent to the current SAARC chair, Nepal, states, “The growing interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh by one country has created an environment which is not conducive to the successful hosting of the 19th SAARC Summit in Islamabad in November 2016. Bangladesh, as the initiator of the SAARC process, remains steadfast in its commitment to regional cooperation, connectivity and contacts, but believes that these can only go forward in a more congenial atmosphere. In view of the above, Bangladesh is unable to participate in the proposed summit.”
Bhutan followed suit with a letter stating that “while reaffirming Bhutan’s strong commitment to the SAARC process and strengthening of regional cooperation, it notes the concern of the Royal Government of Bhutan on the recent escalation of terrorism in the region, which has seriously compromised the environment for the successful holding of the 19th SAARC Summit in Islamabad in November 2016. Further, the Royal Government of Bhutan shares the concerns of some of the member countries of SAARC on the deterioration of regional peace and security.”
While India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan defend their decision to pull out of the SAARC summit as an effort to diplomatically isolate Pakistan on the issue of cross border terrorism and regional peace and security -- in reality, the decision exposes the deep rooted political impediments to cooperation in the region.
South Asia is one of the most backward regions in the world, and in addition to terror, it is home to the more pressing realities of poverty, illiteracy, inequality, unemployment, low productivity and malnourishment. The region comprises of 23.4 per cent of the world’s population but accounts for only 6.66 per cent of the world’s GDP, with over 40 percent of the global poor calling it home.
Yet, SAARC member countries have not been able to strengthen ties to work toward development of the region. In fact, the reason for setting up SAARC in the first place was to promote regional cooperation by working around political and diplomatic tensions -- such as tensions between India and Pakistan -- by bringing the focus onto issues of trade, infrastructure, sustainable development, poverty alleviation, etc.
The need and ability to work around bilateral tensions is the crux of any effective regional body, be it ASEAN, the EU, USAN, the Arab League or SAARC.
For instance, the dispute over the South China Sea has contributed to tensions between China and the Philippines, but the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has met despite these tensions.
SAARC, on the other hand, has been plagued by bilateral tensions. Following Uri, India has taken a number of steps to serve a response to Pakistan. At the time of writing, India announced that it had conducted ‘surgical strikes’ targeting “terror launchpads” across the LoC. Pakistan denied this, claiming that "there has been no surgical strike by India, instead there had been cross border fire initiated and conducted by India which is existential phenomenon." However, as the details are still emerging on the developments, this account will focus on the other responses.
The other responses have been a meeting on the Indus Waters Treaty, reviewing Pakistan's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status and highlighting Pakistan’s support to cross border terror at the United Nations. The decision to not attend the SAARC summit is the additional response.
However, all of these responses have served to be symbolic, pyrrhic victories. The Indus Water Treaty was brokered by the World Bank and while PM Modi held a meeting on the Indus Water Commission, it was made clear after this round of consultations that there was no move to review the Treaty or abrogate it. Only the bilateral mechanism set up to sort out related problems will be suspended for the moment. This, in effect means, that all issues of controversy will now be sent to the international arbiter that is the World Bank. It will have no impact on the working of the Treaty, for the moment at least. As reported again by The Citizen, New Delhi cannot move to abrogate this without serious consequences.
In respect to the Most Favoured Nation status, the status was given by New Delhi to Pakistan unilaterally in 1996. Pakistan has not reciprocated, thereby the full impact of MFN having been thwarted. As sources pointed out, withdrawing the MFN status to Pakistan will at best be symbolic as bilateral trade between the two neighbours has still to take off.
Further, while the Indian media made headlines out of fairly standard statements issued by the UNSC members, independently, on the Uri attack and on India’s push to isolate Pakistan internationally at the UN, in reality -- world powers have responded to the attack by urging dialogue between India and Pakistan.
The SAARC summit, therefore, is the latest casualty in India’s quest for pyrrhic victories. While it succeeds in reducing the November summit in Islamabad to an incomplete event, as India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan will all be missing (leaving only Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives), in reality the move serves to -- once again -- cast a shadow of doubt over the future of SAARC and South Asian regional cooperation. In one of the most economically backward regions of the world, the real cost of the victory of issuing a diplomatic signal to Pakistan will be borne by the citizens of every member state.