On 15 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a video conference with the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries to discuss the challenge of COVID-19 and if a collective approach could be taken to tackle this issue. India also made an initial contribution of $10 million to the emergency fund for COVID-19. This video conference was considered as a step towards the revival of SAARC.
India-Pakistan disputes have been ascribed to the disfunction of SAARC to a great extent. However, after the video conference, there were indications that India could think about taking SAARC forward without Pakistan. Apart from the contribution, India kept its navy ships and medical teams on standby for neighbours Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka if there arises any need to provide assistance.
Way back in 2014, Modi had hinted that regional integration must go ahead through SAARC or outside of it, either with all of us or some of us. The shift in India’s foreign policy has been visible since 2014 when Indian Prime Minister Modi had invited the leaders of SAARC nations for the oath-taking ceremony.
Likewise, in 2019 he invited the leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) for the oath-taking ceremony. However, at the video conference of SAARC senior trade officials, an initiative of India to revive SAARC was boycotted by Pakistan earlier this month. Pakistan’s consistent stand against India could lead India to restructure SAARC.
India has reasons to consider regional integration without Pakistan. If India can revive SAARC without Pakistan, it would lead to taking steps in three directions. First is the isolation of Pakistan, second is counterbalance against China and third is regional integration in South Asia.
Exposing Pakistan’s support to terrorism at the international level and creating pressure through international isolation has been one of India’s long-time diplomatic approaches against Pakistan. Over the years, India has been actively pursuing these approaches successfully.
In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, in May 2019, the United Nations Security Council designated Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, involved in the Pulwama attack and other terror attacks in India. This was a big diplomatic victory for India.
Similarly, Pakistan tried to raise the issue of Kashmir at international forums after India abrogated Article 370 in August 2019 but didn’t receive the expected support. Even Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Maldives supported India and called the Kashmir issue India’s “internal matter”.
Recently, Pakistan had demanded an urgent meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Foreign Ministers over the Kashmir issue. However, this request was turned down by Saudi Arabia. Reviving SAARC without Pakistan would be a major step towards underlining the fact that the disruptive tendencies of Pakistan must not result in compromising the interests of other powers in the region.
Along with circumventing the problems with Pakistan, one of the important purposes of this integration would be to counterbalance China’s influence in the region. China’s outreach across the Indo-Pacific region is a challenge for India, but China’s support to Pakistan adds additional pressure for India in the neighbourhood.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in Pakistan (through China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and other neighbouring countries can pose a strategic challenge to India. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) already violates India’s sovereignty since it passes through the area of Pakistan Administered Kashmir, which Pakistan ceded to China.
China has been supporting Pakistan diplomatically at the international forums. Before Masood Azhar was listed as a global terrorist in May 2019, China had vetoed the resolution against him on several occasions. Similarly, China has supported Pakistan at the meetings of the Financial Action Task Force. As a result, Pakistan has been able to avoid being black-listed and remains on the grey list.
Nevertheless, it is important that while India works towards reviving the SAARC, simultaneously, it presents a plan for increased integrated engagement in economic and strategic areas with the neighbouring countries.
South Asia remains one of the most disintegrated regions in the world. SAARC was formed so that the region could be integrated and economic cooperation could be strengthened among the neighbouring countries. However, the disputes between India and Pakistan have overshadowed the main purpose of SAARC and have severely affected its functioning.
India’s efforts towards regional integration in South Asia are concomitant to its proposition of multilateralism and its policies of engagements with diverse institutions. Modi’s foreign policy has laid stress on a multilateral approach to counter the struggle for strategic space between major powers.
The underlying factor of India’s approach is that in the course of power rivalry, especially between the United States and China in the Indo-Pacific, other countries’ interests should not be compromised. India has proposed this approach for its engagements with Southeast Asia and for the overall Indo-Pacific region.
An integrated South Asia could support India’s vision of multilateral order in the Indo-Pacific.
A push towards regional integration in South Asia would also address the contradiction of India’s engagements with institutions. While India has been considered better at bilateral relations than multilateral ones, India has also made sincere efforts towards increasing its engagements with multilateral institutions in the past few years.
India’s engagements with institutions like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European Union, BRICS and BIMSTEC have increased over the years. Thus, the revival of SAARC would only strengthen India’s interactions with institutions.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 and responses to it are likely to change the world order and the ways nations interact with each other. While meeting the challenge posed by the spread of the virus, it is also important to consider how future systems will evolve. This could also be an opportunity to rethink the structure of SAARC outside of the existing traditional structure, leading towards an alternative mechanism to address the regional issues.
Dr Vikash Shukla, Assistant Professor, Government Degree College Rudraprayag, Uttarakhand