December 8 is commemorated as SAARC Charter Day. It was on this day, 37 years ago, that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), an intergovernmental organisation, was established by Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to promote economic growth in South Asia. Afghanistan acceded to SAARC later.
What is the concern?
- SAARC has failed abjectly in accomplishing most of its objectives. South Asia continues to be an extremely poor and least integrated region in the world. The intraregional trade and investment in South Asia are very low when compared to other regions such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Sub-Saharan Africa.
- Pakistan has adopted an obstructionist attitude within SAARC by repeatedly blocking several vital initiatives such as the motor vehicles agreement, aimed at bolstering regional connectivity.
- Deepening hostility between India and Pakistan has made matters worse. Since 2014, no SAARC summit has taken place leaving the organisation rudderless, and practically dead.
Significance of regionalism –
- India, in the last few years, has been looking at SAARC through the lens of Pakistan. Consequently, the deterioration in India-Pakistan relations has coincided with the incapacitation of SAARC, much to the delight of Pakistan.
- A weakened SAARC also means heightened instability in other promising regional institutions such as the South Asian University (SAU), which is critical to buttressing India’s soft power in the region.
- A new narrative is that in South Asia, India can successfully use the instrument of bilateralism over regionalism to pursue its interests. While bilateralism is undoubtedly important, it can at best complement, not substitute, regional or multilateral efforts.
- Regionalism has brought immense success in other parts such as East Asia and Africa. Regionalism can deliver prosperity in the South Asian region too, especially because multilateralism is weakening.
BIMSTEC – the way forward –
- The next best scenario is to look at other regional instruments such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), an intergovernmental organisation established in 1997.
- In recent years, India seems to have moved its diplomatic energy away from SAARC to BIMSTEC. This resulted in BIMSTEC, after 25 years, finally adopting its Charter earlier this year. Article 6 of the BIMSTEC Charter talks about the ‘Admission of new members’ to the group. This paves the way for the admission of countries such as the Maldives.
- Notwithstanding the improvements, the BIMSTEC Charter, to boost economic integration, does not contain the flexible participation scheme of the kind present in the ASEAN Charter. This flexible scheme, also known as the ‘ASEAN Minus X’ formula, allows two or more ASEAN members to initiate negotiations for economic commitments. Thus, no country enjoys veto power to thwart economic integration between willing countries.
- A flexible ‘BIMSTEC Minus X’ formula might allow India and Bangladesh or India and Thailand to conduct their ongoing bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations under the broader BIMSTEC umbrella. This would eventually strengthen BIMSTEC by enabling the gradual and incremental expansion of these binding commitments to other members. India should press for this amendment in the BIMSTEC Charter.
BIMSTEC should not end up as another SAARC. For this, its member countries should raise the stakes. A high-quality FTA offering deep economic integration would be an ideal step. Likewise, India should explore legal ways to move successful SAARC institutions such as SAU to BIMSTEC. These steps will give stronger roots to BIMSTEC and enable erecting a new South Asian regional order based on incrementalism and flexibility, ushering in prosperity and peace in the region.
Source – The Hindu
QUESTION – With the emergence of a new world order, a new South Asian order is also emerging and the region cannot afford the veto of a disinterested player like Pakistan to put cooperation at ruins. In the light of this statement, discuss how SAARC can be replaced or substituted by the BIMSTEC in the near future?