India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s recent comments on a Pakistan-less SAARC is a clear indication of the decreasing relevance of the organisation.
SAARC which stands for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is a geopolitical cooperation between eight nations: India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and the Maldives. The organisation was founded in 1985 and has a secretariat in Kathmandu, Nepal and meets annually. It also has an established diplomatic relationship with the UN and has the US, Russia, China and Iran as observers.
The last summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad was cancelled in the wake of the Uri attacks when the likes of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka pulled out. Pakistan blamed India for sabotaging the meet. This has seriously jeopardised the future of the organisation, and in this regard, Secretary Jaishankar has presented a snapshot of SAARC without Pakistan.
With China strengthening its ties with Pakistan, the change in US Politics and its foreign outreach will compel India to now play a more proactive lead in South and South East Asia. China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative through which it aims to promote regional and continental connectivity between China and Eurasia will see Beijing playing a more assertive role and will aim to counter the US’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy.
India should, however, prevent such adhocism and instead go for regional groupings based on past experiences.
The BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation is a viable option. The international organisation includes Myanmar, Thailand, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. This will allow India to engage with its neighbours effectively.
The recent BRICS-BIMSTEC meet in Goa certainly allowed India to project itself as a stable, secure and rapidly expanding economy. Moreover, BIMSTEC allows India to play a more inclusive role in combating climate change and terrorism. India could also achieve its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Being a part of such an arrangement allows for cooperation in academics, social and economic exchanges and regional connectivity i.e.,- BCIM corridor (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar).
As explained by Preeti Saran, secretary MEA (East): “It’s an issue-free relationship that we have among the members of BIMSTEC”. Also, strong ties will help India implement its Act East Policy.
So this brings us to the question- Will BIMSTEC replace SAARC?
Although Indian diplomats might feel that it is very early to write an obituary for SAARC, especially because it has its own organisational structure, a well-defined charter, whereas the BIMSTEC is an informal club of countries who are bound by common interests.
The BIMSTEC still allows India greater leverage to enhance its role in the crucial regions of South and South East Asia and to expand its outreach and therefore should be considered a favourable alternative, should SAARC fail.