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October 18, 2016

SAARC Beyond Pakistan?

In November 2016, Pakistan was expected to host the 19th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Islamabad. As the second largest member of SAARC, Pakistan could have used the Summit to forge ahead on a slew of proposals made at recent SAARC Summits, including the eventual creation of a “South Asian Economic Union” (SAEU), an idea endorsed by SAARC leaders at the 18th Summit in Kathmandu in November 2014.

However, despite being party to the Kathmandu Declaration, Pakistan chose to simultaneously continue with its decades-old policy of using terror as an instrument of its foreign policy while inviting members of SAARC for the Islamabad Summit. The September 2016 attack on Uri in India by Pakistani-based terrorists compelled India to inform Pakistan that it could not participate in the Islamabad SAARC Summit. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and India informed Nepal, the current SAARC Chair, of their “inability to participate in the 19th SAARC summit scheduled for November 9 and 10, 2016 in Islamabad, stating that current regional environment is not conducive to the successful holding of the Summit.” On receipt of these communications Nepal, called for a “conducive atmosphere” to be created for hosting the Summit. Sri Lanka regretted that “the prevailing environment in the region is not conducive for holding the 19th SAARC Summit in Islamabad.” Maldives also asked for a conducive atmosphere to be created for holding the Summit. Faced with the absence of a majority of SAARC leaders due to a concerted expression of concern on the impact of terrorism on the functioning and future of SAARC, Pakistan had no other option but to postpone the 19th Summit.

In this context, the question is being asked as to whether Pakistan can function without SAARC? The answer to this question has to be found by Pakistan. The size and vibrancy of South Asia has always marked its potential to be one of the building blocks of the “Asian Century”. As SAARC’s second largest member, Pakistan stands to gain significantly from greater regional cooperation in South Asia. The flip side of this question is whether SAARC can function without Pakistan?

The SAARC Charter does not provide for suspending any member state for violating its Principles. However, in successive SAARC Declarations since 1987, SAARC leaders have consistently voiced their concerns on the adverse impact terrorism would have on SAARC. So far, SAARC has not been able to act collectively against any of its members alleged to be violating the letter and spirit of its Charter.

Most SAARC leaders are aware of Pakistan’s track record for the use of “non-state actors” to foment violence and terrorism beyond its territories from October 1947 onwards. President Zia ul Haq, who signed the SAARC Charter on behalf of Pakistan, actively encouraged the Pakistani army to mentor such activity. After the end of the Cold War, such “non-state actors” have metastasized into trans-national terrorist entities, many of whom feature on United Nations sanctions lists. Despite the clear obligations by successive UN Security Council Resolutions on all member states of the UN, including Pakistan, to act against terrorism, Pakistan continues to flout these Resolutions.

Unchecked terrorist activity threatens the implementation of SAARC’s ambitious agenda, especially the SAEU. A roadmap for an Economic Union was proposed by the SAARC-mandated multi-stakeholder South Asia Forum to the 17th SAARC Summit in the Maldives in 2011, and endorsed by the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu in November 2014.  Several initiatives, including greater infrastructural, technological and human connectivity, have been identified to flesh out the SAEU.

The catalyst for the renewed invigoration of SAARC is acknowledged to be an audacious act of personal diplomacy in May 2014 by India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who decided to invite all SAARC leaders to attend his swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi on 26 May 2014. This captured the popular imagination in SAARC member states.

India followed up on this initiative with a series of bold proposals, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 18th SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu on 26 November 2014. As the Prime Minister said, “There is a new awakening in South Asia; a new recognition of inter-linked destinies; and, a new belief in shared opportunities.” He placed emphasis on connecting “the lives of the ordinary citizens of our countries.” Among the initiatives proposed by India were greater connectivity by rail and road, with a priority to “connect ourselves more by air” ; attracting Indian investments in the SAARC region “to produce for the Indian market and create jobs”  for the youth of South Asia; the establishment of a “Special Purpose Facility in India to finance infrastructure projects in our region that enhances connectivity and trade”; the announcement of India’s gift of “a satellite for the SAARC region (that) will benefit us all in areas like education, telemedicine, disaster response, resource management, weather forecasting and communication”; and India’s offer to set up a ” SAARC Regional Supra Reference Laboratory for TB and HIV.”

While these proposals were welcomed by SAARC leaders, including Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at Kathmandu, the government of Pakistan subsequently began to impede their implementation. From opposition to the SAARC satellite, to blocking the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement, Pakistan has sought to hold such forward-looking SAARC initiatives hostage primarily to the interests of its ruling military elite. The adverse impact of such Pakistani intransigence on other SAARC member states, especially land-locked Afghanistan, has been noticeable.

On the ground, SAARC member states have responded to this by bypassing Pakistan through sub-regional initiatives. For example, in June 2015, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) pointedly entered into a Motor Vehicles Agreement in Thimpu. To move ahead on the other projects on SAARC’s agenda without Pakistan, it is possible for interested SAARC member states to act under Article VII of the SAARC Charter, and set up Action Committees of two or more SAARC member states who wish to implement specific projects without the participation of all SAARC member states.

Beyond the SAARC region, projects focused on establishing connectivity between South Asia and South East Asia have the most significance in terms of building an “Asian Century”. The surging trade, investment and connectivity interface between several SAARC countries and ASEAN can propel a SAEU. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) grouping, bringing together Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal, illustrates this well. Pakistan plays a marginal role in this process.

According to ASEAN sources, “In 2013, ASEAN’s total trade with Pakistan amounted to US$6.3 billion. ASEAN’s exports to Pakistan recorded at US$5.3 billion while imports by ASEAN recorded at US$1 billion. Foreign Direct Investment to ASEAN from Pakistan in 2013 was US$13 million.”

Any question of the future of SAARC without Pakistan could be answered by these ground realities.

Asoke Mukerji, former Ambassador of India to the United Nations, was a member of the Indian delegation that participated in the First SAARC Summit in Dhaka in December 1985. He chaired the SAARC Steering Committee establishing the South Asia Forum in 2011. Views expressed by the author are strictly personal.


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  1. Some thirty years of SAARC’s existence it has made no significant impact on the betterment of lives of the people in the region. It is just hard to think that this region could move to an union. Best would be to pursue cooperation within BIMSTEC. Pakistan and Indian cannot reconcile their differences which is there since the partition.

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