Diminishing Relevance of SAARC and Its Implications For India : Daily Current Affairs

Relevance: GS-2: Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests

Key phrases: SAARC, Bilateral and contentious issues,spillover terrorism ,Taliban , Vaccine Maitri bilateral and multilateral engagements beyond South Asia

Why in news?

  • With regard to hosting of 19th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Pakistan has shown its readiness and its Foreign Minister even extended an invitation to India, giving it the option of attending the summit virtually if in-person attendance was difficult.
  • India has rejected the invitation, saying that there was no material change in the situation on ground since the summit was cancelled in 2016 after the Uri terror attack.

Do you know?

  • SAARC comprises 3 % of the world's area and 21% of the world's population
  • SAARC maintains permanent diplomatic relations at the United Nations as an observer and has developed links with multilateral entities, including the European Union.

What is SAARC?

  • South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) is a regional organization of South Asian nations. It was founded on 8 December 1985 at Dhaka. It is dedicated to economic, technological, social, and cultural development emphasizing collective self-reliance.
  • Its seven founding members are Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Afghanistan joined the organization in 2007. Headquarters are in Kathmandu, Nepal.
  • SAARC also includes 9 formally recognised observers including the European Union, the US, Iran and China.
  • Meetings of heads of state are usually scheduled annually.
  • The charter stipulates that decisions are to be unanimous and that “bilateral and contentious issues” are to be avoided.

In its 36 years of existence, SAARC despite numerous challenges has had some commendable achievements in minimizing poverty, ensuring food security, bolstering energy cooperation, and above all, extending trade activities in the region. But in recent years questions are being raised about its relevance and such apprehensions about the pertinence of this regional organization are not without valid grounds. Infact the article makes an attempt to delve into the challenges being faced by SAARC and evaluate the issues that have resulted in the diminishing relevance of the organization and its implications for south Asian countries in general and India in particular.

Details related to recent meetings of SAARC and their fate

  • The last summit i.e. 18th SAARC Summit was held in Kathmandu in 2014.
  • Pakistan was supposed to host the 19th Summit in 2016 but it was cancelled after India refused to attend in the wake of the Uri terror attack.
  • Recently the meeting of foreign ministers from SAARC scheduled to be held in New York on 25 September 2021 was also cancelled due to disagreement among the member states over the participation of Afghanistan. Islamabad insisted that the Taliban be allowed to send its representative to the summit. It was rejected by all of the other member states.

Challenges being faced by SAARC

  • The Taliban has not been recognised as the official government of Afghanistan by any SAARC countries barring Pakistan. Moreover, there is threat of spillover terrorism from Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. Further, the uncontrolled flow of drugs, illegal weapons, human trafficking etc., from Afghanistan acts as a major challenge for the member nations of SAARC.
  • Its member states are plagued by internal divisions, most notably the conflict between India and Pakistan.
  • SAARC is yet to become a regional association in the mould of the European Union or the African Union. SAARC is yet to form comprehensive trade agreements

Diminishing Relevance of SAARC

  • In the last few years, SAARC has been bedeviled/ tormented time and again by bilateral issues among the member states and defective implementation policies.
  • Many visionary projects have failed to see the light of the day or have remained in a haphazard form. The SAARC Satellite Project, the SAARC Development Fund, the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement, the SAARC Regional Railway Agreement, or the establishment of the SAARC Environment and Disaster Management Centre, are just to name a few.
  • SAARC Free Trade Agreement signed in 2004 and which came into effect on 1 January 2006 has also failed to live up to its hype.
  • SAARC has always been overshadowed by the complexities of India-Pakistan ties. Infact the multilateral character of the SAARC could not evolve due to the bilateral conflict between India and Pakistan.
  • The last SAARC summit was held way back in 2014, and from then on the member countries have failed to reconcile their differences and find that common ground reflecting their own interests.
  • The growing influence of other state actors like China in the region has also cultivated serious mistrust, mostly on the Indian side. Infact most of the member countries (except India) are in favor of welcoming China as a full fledged member of SAARC.

Reasons for lack of a conducive environment for the talks within SAARC

  • The situation in Afghanistan is a major impediment. There is still no consensus across the world, not just in South Asia, about recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.
  • The holding of a SAARC summit would thus be difficult since, barring Pakistan, no other member countries would be comfortable sharing the round table with the Taliban’s representatives.
  • Several top Taliban leaders are blacklisted by the US and/or designated as international terrorists.
  • SAARC has always been overshadowed by the complexities of India-Pakistan ties. Infact the multilateral character of the SAARC could not evolve due to the bilateral conflict between India and Pakistan.

India reviewing its traditional approach towards SAARC

  • Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempted a revival of SAARC in 2014 when he invited leaders of all the SAARC countries to his swearing-in ceremony but considering the challenges in making the SAARC initiative work, India has reset its approach to regional integration.
  • Infact its policies after 2014 indicate a lack of interest in SAARC. Instead, India has explored other options along two fronts:
  • First, by way of bilateral engagements with South Asian neighbors under the Neighbourhood First Policy and,
  • Second, by focusing more on bilateral and multilateral engagements beyond South Asia.

Neighborhood First Policy

  • Under the Neighborhood First Policy, India has engaged with neighbours such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, circumventing Pakistan.
  • India has laid stress on mutually beneficial economic engagements and humanitarian assistance. This was evident especially in the past two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance India prioritized the supplied medical equipment, medicines, vaccines etc, in the neighborhood e.g. Vaccine Maitri (Vaccine Friendship) Initiative.
  • Though the Neighborhood First Policy does not have a formal institutional structure, it is a convenient option for India to maneuver across South Asia, disregarding its relations with Pakistan.

Diversification in multilateral engagements by India

  • India has increased its engagements with sub-regional and inter-regional bodies such as
  • The BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation),
    • BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal Initiative)
    • BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), and
    • The G-20, to name a few.
  • India is also looking to expand its outreach to Southeast Asia through Act East Policy and to Central Asia through India-Central Asia Dialogue.
  • The diversification in India’s multilateral engagements indicates New Delhi’s unwillingness to be a part of a process South Asian regional integration that has no future owing to conflict with Pakistan. Instead, India is seeking greener pastures beyond South Asia to establish a prominent identity for itself at the global level.

Way forward

  • One cannot deny the fact that SAARC has been beneficial in multiple ways. The annual summits in past have helped in cooling down bilateral flare-ups as well. The summit meetings have often also provided a common negotiating ground to resume and proceed with deadlocked bilateral and regional agreements.
  • Emergence of a nation in the international arena greatly depends on its strong influence in its own region. India cannot afford to lose its influence in South Asia. So SAARC is really an important platform for India’s success.
  • In the light of overarching presence of China in South Asia, if India has to hold its ground as the dominant power, it is imperative to keep the bilateral differences aside. The stalemate between India and Pakistan needs to be properly addressed, as it is for the genuine benefit of both, vis-à-vis the South Asian region.
  • Also, if India succeeds in positioning itself as the sole binding factor in the region, it will definitely act as a force magnifier for India’s ambitions in the global arena.

Mains Question:

Q. ‘SAARC is losing relevance but it should not lose relevance’. Comment