The killer COVID-19 is prompting the reactivation and revival of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a bold and positive initiative to engage with his SAARC colleagues for working out a mutually-coordinated strategy to deal with the impact of this pandemic.
SAARC has been in the International Care Unit since 2015, on account of Pakistan’s refusal to cooperate in regional connectivity projects, and India’s refusal to engage with Pakistan. Modi’s initiative may or may not fully succeed in eradicating the epidemic, in a densely-populated South Asia which has very poor public health awareness and infrastructure. But it has, in it, the promise to bring SAARC back to life.
The video conference of SAARC leaders, where Pakistan was also on board, welcomed Modi’s proposal for an emergency fund with India’s contribution of $10 million for dealing with the crisis. The leaders of SAARC also agreed not only to pool their best practices, share their experiences and coordinate their efforts to work together in fighting the virus, but also to mitigate its long-term economic and social consequences.
India’s unstated message to its neighbours behind this initiative was loud and clear – that it will stand by them in coping with the spillover of external disorders, even when such disorders are fatal and come from the north. This is a reiteration of India’s prompt and decisive support to neighbours at the time of facing natural disasters. India’s message is also for the world that it is willing and prepared, within its resources and capabilities, to undertake responsibilities in preserving and promoting the global common good.
While the initiative underlines India’s commitment to become a credible global player, it also seems to have been prompted by the failure on two other counts, of India’s neighbourhood-first foreign policy, launched by the prime minister with considerable enthusiasm and fanfare in 2014. One is on the count of isolating Pakistan – for its refusal to relent on the strategy of cross-border terrorism against India, which was a key factor in freezing SAARC. The SAARC Summit in 2016 was to be led by Pakistan, when India refused to participate.
Pakistan is nowhere near being isolated by the international community. China stands solidly with Pakistan. Saudi Arabia has endorsed the Pakistani proposal to keep Kashmir on the agenda of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). And, above all, the United States continues to work with Pakistan on terrorism-related issues, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. During US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to India, he distanced himself from India’s cross-border concerns saying that India and its PM were strong enough to handle this problem and other regional countries must help because the US was about 13,000 kilometres away. President Trump’s public praise for Pakistan’s prime minister for his anti-terror cooperation and his call on India to work on regional peace and stability, in the presence of PM Modi, was nothing short of a subtle but strong snub to India’s policy of isolating and not talking to Pakistan. Keeping SAARC in deep-freeze because of Pakistan was not serving anybody’s interest.
Another aspect of India’s neighbourhood first policy in recent years has been to build the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec), as an alternative grouping to SAARC. India has been actively promoting and strengthening Bimstec in several areas, including Indian Ocean regional security and counterterrorism. But a realisation has been gradually dawning on Indian policymakers that there are limits in this respect. Not only are Thailand and Myanmar economically and strategically closer to China, but Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh also have extensive economic engagement with China and are struggling to work out balancing strategies between India and China. Some of them did not hesitate to politely bring in China even during the SAARC conference on fighting COVID-19.
The India-Pakistan dyad is not the only bane of SAARC. India’s other smaller neighbours have also been very cautious on regional integration proposals as they have not been able to figure out as to how close is not too close to India. The slow movement in the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal subregional initiative may be recalled here.
India has, therefore, done well to move towards reviving SAARC. Let Pakistan isolate itself by refusing to join in regional projects. Pakistan’s pettiness in having a lower representation at the COVID-19 video conference and its reference to the Kashmir issue, did not go well with other participants. Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani even put Pakistan on the defensive by referring to the closing of borders in facing the epidemic. India can repeat Balakots (a Pakistan Kashmir town destroyed by earthquake in 2005 and rebuilt with Saudi Arabia help) to punish Pakistan for its cross-border terrorism, without making it an issue in the regional forum. The revival of SAARC will also facilitate India’s neighbourhood policy in meeting the challenge of regional strategic encroachment by China through its Belt and Road Initiative.
SD Muni is professor emeritus, Jawaharial Nehru University, a member of the executive council, Infectious Diseases Society of America and former ambassador and special envoy, government of India. HINDUSTAN TIMES