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Reviving SAARC from Doldrums

Reviving SAARC from Doldrums

UPSC CSE Mains Syllabus: GS-2- India and its neighborhood- relations.

In news:

  • As India-China bordertensions continue to fester, a hegemonic China, as part of its global expansionism, is chipping away at India’s interests in South Asia.
  • This should be a major cause for concern for New Delhi.
  • China’s proximity to Pakistan is well known.
  • Nepalis moving closer to China for ideational and material reasons.
  • China is wooing Bangladesh by offering tariff exemption to 97% of Bangladeshi products,and has intensified its ties with Sri Lanka through massive investments.
  • According to a Brookings India study, most South Asian nations are now largely dependent on Chinafor imports despite geographical proximity to India.

SAARC:

  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established when its Charter was formally adopted on December 8, 1985 by theHeads of State or Government of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka at the First Summit meeting in Dhaka.
  • Afghanistan was admitted as theeighth Member of the SAARC during the Fourteenth Summit held in New Delhi on

·         GENERAL PRINCIPLES

  • Cooperation within the framework of the SAARC shall be based on respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and mutual benefit.
  • Such cooperation shall not be a substitute for bilateral and multilateral cooperation but shall complement them.
  • Such cooperation shall not be inconsistent with bilateral and multilateral obligations.

Reinvigorating SAARC:

  • Several foreign policy experts argue that India’s strategic dealing with China has to begin with South Asia.
  • In this regard, it is important to reinvigorate SAARC, which has been in the doldrums since 2014.
  • In the last few years, due to increasing animosity with Pakistan, India’s political interest in SAARC dipped significantly.
  • India has been trying hard to isolate Pakistan internationallyfor its role in promoting terrorism in India.
  • However, Pakistan is not facing substantial isolation internationally.
  • India started investing in other regional instruments, such as BIMSTEC, as an alternative to SAARC.
  • However, BIMSTEC cannot replace SAARCfor reasons such as lack of a common identity and history among all BIMSTEC members.
  • Moreover, BIMSTEC’s focus is on the Bay of Bengal region, thus making it an inappropriate forum to engage all South Asian nations.
  • Maintaining a huge difference in stature and size, SAARC has had 18 summits in the 32 years of its existence and the forum has an extensive network of mechanisms, regional centers andconventions as well as a permanent Secretariat in Kathmandu, Nepal. 
  • On the other hand, the BIMSTEC has just 10 staff membersto date, which includes the secretary general and three directors.
  • There is no real comparisonbetween the two organizationally.
  • Nevertheless, the BIMSTECmembers tried their best to bring the group to the next level, and recently India hosted the first BIMSTEC army exercises “MILEX 2018” in Pune.
  • So far, neither SAARC nor the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) have had such a military component.
  • However, both Nepal and Thailandchose to opt out of the exercises and preferred to remain observers, proving that security dialogues and counterterrorism efforts cannot supersede the importance of trade and regional connectivity.
  • The absence of SAARC is creating an irreplaceable vacuumin the region as it focuses more on reinforcing regional trade and cultural links.
  • Understandably, Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli stressedduring his parliamentary address this August that “while BIMSTEC holds great possibilities, there is nevertheless urgent need to revive SAARC.” 
  • Having been too focused on security issues, BIMSTEC has failed to enthuse the membership which was more interested in a free trade agreement.

How to revive SAARC:

  • One way to infuse life in SAARC is to revive the process of South Asian economic integration.
  • South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world with intra-regional trade teetering at barely 5%of total South Asian trade, compared to 25% of intra-regional trade in the ASEAN region.
  • While South Asian countries have signed trade treaties, the lack of political will and trust deficithas prevented any meaningful movement.
  • According to the World Bank, trade in South Asia stands at $23 billion of an estimated value of $67 billion.
  • India should take the lead and work with its neighbours to slash the tariff and non-tariff barriers.
  • There’s a need to resuscitatethe negotiations on a SAARC investment treaty, pending since 2007.
  • According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, intra-ASEAN investments constitute around 19% of the total investmentsin the region.
  • The SAARC region can likewise benefit from higher intra-SAARC investment flows. Deeper regional economic integration will create greater interdependence with India acquiring the central role, which, in turn, would serve India’s strategic interests too.

Measures taken:

  • A tweet by the Indian Prime Minister resulted in the first-ever virtual summit of SAARC leaders on March 15.
  • Their deliberations reflected recognition of the serious menace posed by COVID-19 and the need for robust regional cooperationto overcome it.
  • Considering that SAARC has been dormant for several years due to regional tensions, it is worth stressing that thefight against COVID-19 has been taken up in right earnest through a series of tangible measures.
  • First, all the eight member-states were represented at the video conference — all at the level of head of state or government, except Pakistan.
  • The Secretary General of SAARC participated. They readily agreed to work together to contain the virus, and shared their experiences and perspectives.
  • Second, India’s proposal to launch a COVID-19 Emergency Fundwas given positive reception.
  • Within days, all the countries, except Pakistan, contributed to it voluntarily, bringing the total contributions to $18.8 million.
  • Although it is a modest amount, the spirit of readily expressed solidarity behind it matters.
  • Third, the fund has already been It is controlled neither by India nor by the Secretariat.
  • It is learnt that each contributing member-state is responsible for approval and disbursement of fundsin response to requests received from others.
  • Fourth, in the domain of implementation, India is in the lead, with its initial contribution of $10 million.
  • It has received requests for medical equipment, medicines and other supplies from Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
  • Steps are now under way to nurture technical cooperationthrough a shared electronic platform as also to arrange exchange of all useful information among health professionals through more informal means.

Source:” The Hindu“.

POSSIBLE UPSC CSE MAINS QUESTION:

In order to withstand the rise of Chinese expansionism in South Asia, there is a need to revive SAARC from its doldrums. Comment .