Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme
Though there are trends towards regional cooperation in South Asia, unresolved tensions between the two countries has curtailed the effectiveness of SAARC.
Passengers stand with their belongings at Tribhuvan International Airport before the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu. Photo by Getty Images.Passengers stand with their belongings at Tribhuvan International Airport before the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu. Photo by Getty Images.

As India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, noted at the opening of the summit of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), ‘Less than 5% of the region's global trade takes place between [the countries of SAARC , Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and, since 2007, Afghanistan]… Indian companies are investing billions abroad, but less than 1% flow into our region. It is still harder to travel within our region than to Bangkok or Singapore; and, more expensive to speak to each other.’

This lack of connectivity reflects the failure of SAARC: along with Central Asia, South Asia is among the least connected regions of the world. Yet, in terms of shared and overlapping cultures and languages, South Asia is one of the world’s most homogenous regions. The Kathmandu summit was meant to witness a framework for energy cooperation and agreements on road and rail connectivity.

However, Pakistan stalled the road and rail agreements, on the grounds that it was yet to complete its ‘internal process’. The regional rail agreement was first drafted in 2008 and has since been discussed in three expert group meetings.  The motor vehicle agreement has been mooted since 2009.

That SAARC constantly fails stems from two factors. The first, tension between India and Pakistan, is the most fundamental.  Without progress on core disputes – notably the status of Kashmir – Pakistan has proved loth to improve relations with India, even if they may be in Pakistan’s self-interest. Under the bilateral composite dialogue between them, progress on a range of confidence-building measures was meant to accompany discussions about Kashmir. But in the absence of progress over Kashmir, it stalled. Afghanistan is another source of tension: Pakistan’s move to stymie the road and rail agreements may reflect in part a desire to hinder Indian trade with Afghanistan.

The second issue is India’s size compared to its neighbours. Bhutan aside, each of India’s neighbours has – to a greater or lesser degree – some fear of Indian hegemony. To overcome this is not difficult: under the Gujral Doctrine, in the mid-1990s, the idea was ‘non-reciprocity’ − that is, India needs to give more to its neighbours than it receives from them.

But this common-sense approach was then side-lined for nearly two decades before apparently returning under new prime minister Narendra Modi. Indian politicians preferred to look further afield – to China or the US – rather than to their turbulent neighbourhood. The region was too difficult, and the rise of regional parties did little to help. At the same time, civil wars have only recently ended in two of India’s neighbours, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Narendra Modi has greater leeway on India’s regional policy, being the first prime minister for 25 years to govern with a majority (reducing the impact of regional parties). And he has already made clear his desire to bolster relations with both Nepal and Bangladesh. While his logic for doing so may owe something to his Hindu nationalist beliefs, it is clearly the case that India will struggle to play a ‘global’ role, if it cannot play a positive role in its own backyard.

If India is trying to demonstrate that it can be a regional force for good, it is with Nepal and Bangladesh. On Pakistan, India looked for the first pretext to cancel talks, and found one in a visit by Kashmiri separatists to the Pakistani high commissioner in Delhi. Freezing the relationship with Pakistan probably reflected a belief that talks with Pakistan – riven by internal political tension – would serve no purpose. Cancelling the talks also reflects anger within India of the slow progress of Pakistani investigations into the 2008 Mumbai attacks and played to the populist gallery.

These trends have played into the SAARC summit. Following Pakistan’s move to block the road and rail agreements, India is likely to sign bilateral agreements to the same effect with Nepal and Bangladesh. This does not necessarily spell the end for SAARC: India suggested a slew of measures – assistance in disaster relief and healthcare, for instance, which may well be implemented through SAARC. And SAARC will remain important for India because Afghanistan is a member. But Pakistan is unlikely to avail India’s offers and India’s main focus will shift east, both bilaterally and through groupings such as BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, which contains Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal) or even the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation.

Moves towards greater regional connectivity are likely to boost both economic growth as well as trust. But until relations between India and Pakistan are normalized, they are unlikely to happen through SAARC.  Meanwhile, unless the final handshake between Modi and Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, signals the start of a rapprochement, Pakistan seems likely to sit on the side-lines of a potentially transformative project.

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