SAARC sans Pakistan?

As countries across South Asia celebrated the 34th Charter Day of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) it was more of an occasion to evaluate the chances of survival of the moribund regional organization than a reason to celebrate.

Syeda Mamoona Rubab

As countries across South Asia celebrated the 34th Charter Day of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) it was more of an occasion to evaluate the chances of survival of the moribund regional organization than a reason to celebrate.

The prognosis is not good for the organization that we know more as a talk shop and one that has been held hostage by regional rivalries, particularly the one between Pakistan and India. The organization does not have anything significant to claim to its credit since its inception in 1985.

Although SAARC covers a bigger land area than European Union and Association of Southeast Asian Nations, two well-known models of regional cooperation and integration, and has a bigger population, but the region it represents is characterized by insecurity, poverty, and lack of development. The region on the whole is least integrated in the world. We know from available literature that regional integration would result in more stability with a positive impact on investment and trade.

Similarly, regional agreements may incentivize infrastructure projects that could give a fillip to the development process and there could also be regional policies in which member states could work together to tackle poverty. But, all of that is missing in SAARC’s case. Trade agreements signed by SAARC members in the past too have failed to make much headway.

All these realities speak about the failure of SAARC, but at this particular juncture the main issue concerning the region’s inter-governmental body is not about getting better results, but relates more to how to move past its current impasse because of which the summit of the organization could not be held for over two years. Pakistan was to host SAARC’s 19th Summit in November 2016, but had to postpone it because India withdrew, accusing Islamabad of “cross-border terrorist attacks in the region and growing interference in internal affairs of member states.” A number of other regional countries on that occasion sided with India.

India has held on to that position since then, stopping SAARC’s chair to set a new date for the summit even though Islamabad, as the host, has on a number of occasions expressed its readiness to hold the event.

The summits, as per SAARC’s Charter, were to be held on an annual basis. The importance of the summits for the functioning of SAARC is underlined by the fact that the heads of member states and governments by the virtue of having the supreme authority drive the work plan of the body.

Postponements of the summits are not new for SAARC. That has been the pattern for much of the organization’s history. The reasons behind the bloc’s inability to hold its summits regularly primarily relate to bilateral disputes between member states and in some cases the internal situations of the hosting country. India, however, features as a key factor in most of the nine postponements that have occurred so far. But, what’s new this time is the kind of stubbornness being shown by Delhi on the issue.

Hosting the SAARC summit was one of the foreign policy priorities of the PTI government after it took office and Prime Minister Imran Khan, in his letter to Premier Narendra Modi renewed the invitation for the summit. The invite was rejected right away. Since then the matter has become part of the verbal duels in which the two capitals regularly engage.

Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, while explaining Delhi’s position on attending SAARC Summit in Islamabad, recently said: “Unless and until Pakistan stops terrorism activities in India … we will not participate in SAARC”.

Even Kartarpur gesture failed to convince India to reconsider its hardline on the matter.

Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua, speaking at a seminar this week, said: “SAARC Summit has been held hostage to the obduracy on part of one state.” She argued that South Asia “can make no progress and achieve no peace” as long as rivalry and hatred between Pakistan and India continues.

The key to unlocking the impasse on SAARC summit is in Delhi’s hands. But, unfortunately, India is not keen on making SAARC work. The Modi government, after coming to office in 2014, claimed to pursue ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and started off by inviting leaders of the region to the prime minister’s inauguration. Later Modi sent his foreign secretary on ‘SAARC Yatra’, but then went cold on the strategy. Apparently, Modi wanted to tap the benefits of regional connectivity, but was wary of losing importance in an equation where Pakistan participates as an equal partner.

Secretary Janjua says: “We have played an active role to make SAARC a useful vehicle for regional cooperation based on the principle of sovereign equality.”

India, however, wants a dominating role and not that of an equal partner. Modi’s viewpoint on SAARC is that “The bonds (with countries in the region) will grow. Through SAARC or outside it. Among us all, or some of us.” Therefore, India is working towards realization of a SAARC without Pakistan. Whether it is India’s sub-regional accord with Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal or the launching of the satellite, Delhi’s game plan is very clear. Can Islamabad pull out something innovative to stop Delhi from cutting it out of the region?

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan and can be reached mamoonarubab@gmail.com