With SAARC stalled, India must invest in alternative regional mechanisms

With SAARC stalled, India must prioritize regional and sub-regional alternatives to recalibrate its neighborhood strategy and its overall foreign policy, writes Don McLain Gill for South Asia Monitor 

Don McLain Gill Jan 21, 2021

In what can be considered to be a veiled reference to Pakistan’s support for terror activities, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently stated that the full potential of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) can only be maximized in an environment significantly free from terrorism and violence. However, Prime Minister Modi continued to emphasize that India is highly committed to work with other states in the region. However,  India must continue to invest in alternative regional arrangements to maintain its strategic position in the region and to surpass the obstacles created by Pakistan in SAARC.  

India, Pakistan, and the future of SAARC

SAARC was a product of a wave across the globe that motivated states to forge regional arrangements in the 1980s. SAARC was envisioned to play a pivotal role in spearheading close cooperation among the eight states of South Asia. However, despite the positive momentum put into this project, the outcome has been far from what was expected. This can be attributed to the constant clashes between India – the regional status quo power – and Pakistan. Pakistan’s consistent support for terror activities throughout the region serves as a major impediment to attaining a conducive environment for regional growth and cooperation. 

It is interesting to note that a few years since 1947 there was a notable amount of trade between the two states with half of Pakistan’s  imports  coming from  India and an estimate of two-thirds of its exports going to  India.  However, with the continuous degradation of the security environment between the two states, trade had eventually dipped into an all-time low. This negative pattern continues up to this day. As a result, with the lack of trust between the two states, regional cooperation in the region can be least expected to evolve and develop. 

The proliferation of Pakistani-backed terror groups have seriously dented any chances of resolving the above-mentioned issues between the two states.  In addition to this, India and  Pakistan have been locked in a border dispute since the partition of 1947. As a result, it has become a pre-requisite for India to have these outstanding issues resolved before forwarding any substantive discussion on cooperation with Pakistan. Though India’s concerns vis-à-vis Pakistan are legitimate and pressing, this has greatly stalled any fruitful discussion under the rubric of SAARC. 

India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral counter

Understanding the unreliability of SAARC to extend cooperation to its other neighbors, India has been seen to become more actively involved in other regional arrangements in South Asia. Among them is the India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral talk. In November, a high-level trilateral dialogue was held between the three nations after a gap of six years. Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval represented India and had discussions with Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Major Gen (retd) Kamal Gunaratne and Maldivian Defence Minister Mariya Didi. The urgency of holding such meetings is crucial for India’s ambitions to forge closer and more progressive relations with its immediate neighbors. 

The three nations have agreed to the significance of this meeting in upholding peace and stability in the region. Furthermore, the discussion among the states encompassed issues such as maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief, joint exercises, capacity building, maritime security and threats, marine pollution, and maritime underwater heritage.

This meeting comes at a time when China has also been making strategic inroads in the region. As a result, India recognizes the need to elevate the importance of such fora to not only serve as a counter-balance to China but also act as an alternative arrangement to SAARC.

All three states have concluded the trilateral discussion with an emphasis on the need to engage more frequently at a time when South Asia and the northern Indian Ocean have come at the forefront of global geopolitics. 

Empowering BIMSTEC

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) serves as another important sub-regional arrangement where India can play a vital role. BIMSTEC is composed of seven key nations: five from South Asia - Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – and two from Southeast Asia – Myanmar and Thailand. BIMSTEC has recently regained its vigor with the entanglement of both strategic and economic realms in the Bay of Bengal which is a critical geographical element of the greater Indo-Pacific. Considering that there are also members from the Southeast Asian sub-region, BIMSTEC can serve as a major instrument to forward India’s Act East policy. 

This creates a reason for India to reinvigorate its BIMSTEC engagement strategy. In addition, with China expanding its economic reach in the region, India must regard the bolstering of its soft and hard infrastructure in the region as a strategic measure.

Accordingly, India is presented with an opportunity to offset its strategic losses from SAARC. One possible avenue for India is to engage with BIMSTEC member states is through inciting local and regional value chains. This is important because supply chain integration not only boosts trade complementarities but also mutually beneficial economic interlinkages. India must engage consistently and actively with these states to create a conducive environment for growth which is currently not present in SAARC. 

With SAARC stalled, India must prioritize regional and sub-regional alternatives to recalibrate its neighborhood strategy and its foreign policy. The way forward revolves around these very arrangements where India can play a more active role without the obstacles Pakistan puts forward.

However, it is important to point out that India must not be complacent with the mere existence of these alternative groupings; rather, it must try to consistently play an active role without casting a shadow on the other members to avoid cultivating an environment of mistrust. India must show positive leadership skills to achieve effective levels of integration and strategic cooperation. 

(The writer is pursuing his master’s degree in International Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. The views are personal)

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