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New South Asian Regional Order

Context

  • As SAARC Charter Day is observed on December 8th, the article discusses the importance of looking at other regional instruments such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), as the chances of reviving SAARC are slim in the current scenario.
  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Charter was adopted on December 8, 1985, in Dhaka, during the grouping’s first summit.

Relevance

GS Paper 2: Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests.

Mains Question

In India’s neighbourhood foreign policy domain, BIMSTEC can serve as a suitable replacement for SAARC. Analyze critically. (250 Words)


SAARC Overview

  • It was founded on December 8, 1985, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, as an intergovernmental organisation and geopolitical union of eight South Asian countries.
    • SAARC also has nine formally recognised observers, including the European Union, the United States, Iran, and China.
  • Secretariat: The SAARC Secretariat is based in Kathmandu (Nepal) and works to promote South Asian economic growth.
  • Goal: The primary goal of SAARC is to work collaboratively to promote the welfare of people in the region and raise their standard of living through social progress and economic development.
  • Summits: SAARC summits are typically held biennially and are hosted in alphabetical order by member states. Since 1985, it has hosted 18 summits, the first of which was held in Dhaka (Bangladesh).
  • SAARC’s current situation
  • SAARC, with 21% of the world’s population and a gross domestic product (GDP) of approx. USD 3 trillion, has been in existence for 38 years, but its influence is limited in comparison to other regional cooperation organisations such as the European Union, ASEAN, and the African Union.
  • Despite long-standing geographical, historical, cultural, social, and economic ties, SAARC is now regarded as the least integrated regional cooperation.
  • Among SAARC’s accomplishments are SAFTA in 2006, the SAARC Development Fund, the Integrated Programme of Action (2012), and the SAARC Satellite.

Reasons for the region’s poor integration

  • Lack of political will: India and Pakistan’s lack of political will impedes the regional grouping’s progress and development.
  • Indo-Pak rivalry: Due to strained relations between India and Pakistan, SAARC’s functioning and activities have virtually stalled. For example, no SAARC summit has been held since 2014, effectively ending the organisation.
    • The 2016 SAARC summit, which Pakistan was to host, was also postponed after India pulled out in the aftermath of the Uri terror attack.
  • As a result, the deterioration of India-Pakistan relations has coincided with the demise of SAARC as a regional organisation.
  • Terrorism: The SAARC Region is also one of the world’s most terror-prone regions, with frequent tensions and unrest within member countries as well as among members.
  • Lack of economic integration: SAFTA, which was launched in 2006, has failed to achieve success due to ongoing tensions and icy Indo-Pak relations.
    • The SAARC nations’ gross domestic product (GDP) is approximately It is one of the world’s most emerging development regions, with a GDP of $3 trillion.
    • However, due to a lack of economic integration, SAARC nations have failed to meet the world’s enormous market demand in sectors such as industry, services such as hospitality and information technology, agriculture, and health.
    • As a result, China and other global market players have taken advantage of the situation.
  • Recent developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan: For example, the evolving socioeconomic situation in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime’s establishment.
    • Pakistan’s recurring economic crisis, continued inclusion on the FATF grey list, and limited financial assistance from Islamic and Western countries may exacerbate a serious humanitarian crisis in the future.
  • China’s diplomacy: China, which had previously wanted to join SAARC, was prevented from doing so by India. As a result, China never wants SAARC to be a powerful organisation. And is attempting to establish relations with SAARC member states other than India.

SAARC’s Importance for India

  • Pan-South Asian reach: SAARC is the region’s only intergovernmental organisation. As a result, India can use it wisely to advance its interests throughout the region.
  • Serve India’s national interests: Because South Asia is India’s immediate neighbour, it is critical for India’s national interests, as identified in the current regime’s ‘Neighborhood First’ policy.
  • Strengthen India’s soft power image: SAARC is critical in bolstering India’s soft power in the region.

BIMSTEC Information

  • It is a 1997 intergovernmental organisation comprised of 5 South Asian nations and 2 ASEAN countries, with a combined population of 1.73 billion people and a GDP of USD 4.4 trillion (2022).
  • It aims to create an enabling environment for rapid economic development, accelerate social progress, and promote regional collaboration on issues of mutual interest.

The BIMSTEC provides opportunities.

  • South Asia-Southeast Asia Link: BIMSTEC can assist India in giving primacy to her immediate neighbourhood and connecting it with Southeast Asia.
    • For example, in recent years, India has shifted its diplomatic focus from SAARC to BIMSTEC, resulting in BIMSTEC finally adopting its Charter earlier this year.
    • BIMSTEC also aligns with India’s ‘Act East’ policy, which aims to increase regional cooperation in Southeast Asia by providing a platform for intra-regional cooperation among SAARC and ASEAN members.
  • Non-disruptive operation: Pakistan’s non-membership in BIMSTEC could assist India in bolstering its regional ambitions in the grouping without impediment, as Pakistan routinely vetoes several regional integration initiatives in SAARC.
  • More accommodating grouping: Unlike the SAARC Charter, the BIMSTEC Charter mentions the ‘admission of new members’ to the group, paving the way for countries like the Maldives to join.

BIMSTEC’s Difficulties

  • No flexibility for bilateral negotiations: Despite SAARC’s failure, the BIMSTEC Charter lacks the flexible participation scheme found in the ASEAN Charter.
    • The ASEAN Charter’s flexible scheme, also known as the ‘ASEAN Minus X’ formula, allows two or more ASEAN members to begin negotiations for economic commitments.
  • As a result, no country has veto power over economic integration between willing countries.

The way forward

  • BIMSTEC charter update: India should press for a flexible ‘BIMSTEC Minus X’ formula so that BIMSTEC members can conduct bilateral agreements under the broader BIMSTEC umbrella.
    • For example, India and Bangladesh or India and Thailand are currently negotiating bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) under the broader BIMSTEC umbrella.
  • New regional economic order: Building on ASEAN’s spectacular success in regional integration, South Asian economies could explore the concept of a new regional economic order to usher in prosperity and peace in the region.
    • Developing countries will establish a trade-development model based on incrementalism and flexibility as a result of this.

Conclusion

  • Bilateralism can only supplement, not replace, regional or multilateral efforts to bring prosperity to the South Asian region.
  • As a result, India can successfully use bilateralism to pursue its interests and stop viewing SAARC through the lens of Pakistan. Simultaneously, India must revitalise SAARC by injecting political energy into it.
  • However, in the current context, this is overly idealistic. As a result, for India, strengthening BIMSTEC by updating its Charter is the best way forward.

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