SAARC: A Sunk Cost

Following the Uri Attacks, the 19th SAARC Summit that was due to take place on the 15th and 16th of November has been postponed. India refused to attend the summit, placing the blame on cross border terrorism perpetrated by a single country. Soon, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan also chose to opt out of the summit meeting which was due to take place next month. Pakistan placed the blame on India for derailing processes of regional cooperation and reiterated its commitment to the SAARC charter. For now however, the seven heads of South Asia will not be meeting until India and Pakistan have simmered down tensions.

The Indian media has been quick to attribute the postponement of the SAARC meeting to the success of Modi’s diplomacy. However, SAARC meetings have always been susceptible to bilateral tensions. While the group is supposed to meet annually, it concedes that the regional organisation meets only once in a year and a half or so. No wonder SAARC’s initiatives have been characterised by failure: the countries cannot fulfill commitments to meet but intermittently.

The first time the SAARC Summit was derailed was in 1989 when Sri Lanka protested against the delay of the IPKF’s withdrawal from the country. The 7th Summit in 1992 was pushed by a year because of the Babri Masjid riots. A year later, India-Pakistan contentions impacted SAARC processes and the 8th Summit was pushed to 1995. The period between 1998 and 2003 saw repeated postponement of the 11th Summit because of a number of low intensity conflicts between India and Pakistan (from the Kargil War in 1999 to the Parliament Attacks of 2001). The 12th Summit was derailed because of the coup in Nepal and the Dhaka bombings.  After the 26/11 Attacks, the summit was again pushed by a year because of contentions between India and Pakistan. 2012 Summit

The postponement of the SAARC Summit is not a victory of Indian diplomacy but a feature of the SAARC mechanism. Unlike organisations like the ASEAN which have managed to keep channels of communication open even during times of conflict, SAARC’s history remains intertwined with the Indo-Pak power politics. It is unable to accomodate power dynamics of the region and allows for bilateral contentions to easily derail any processes. Even if the SAARC summit had taken place, what would have the result been? SAFTA is dead while the South Asian Economic Union is a pipe dream; regional trade remains at a meagre percentage.

At the 2014 Kathmandu Summit, hullabaloo was created about the launch of a SAARC satellite and cooperation of forces to deal with disasters. The Kathmandu Summit had taken place in the first year of the Modi rajya and there was much talk of the neighbourhood gaining importance- a move indicated by Modi’s unprecedented invitation to the heads of South Asian States to attend his swearing in ceremony. Two years later, bilateral ties between India and the remainder of the South Asian states (the case of Pakistan is debateable) are definitely on the upswing, however, the SAARC remains as ineffective as it has always been.

India needs to acknowledge that this multilateral initiative is not a success and direct its attentions towards the external neighbourhood. It needs to de-hyphenate itself from being merely a South Asian power and look at a larger region such as the Indo-Pacific. India is gradually improving ties with countries in South-East Asia and West Asia, which is the way to go. Maybe it is time to recognise that SAARC is a sunk cost and invest those resources in a more fruitful venture under the larger Asian security architecture.

Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @HamsiniH

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