06 February, 2022
A regional intergovernmental framework and geopolitical organization, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) consists of eight member countries— Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The apex decision making authority under the SAARC are the heads of state or government of member states who come under the same platform during the SAARC summits. The summit declaration is important breakthrough which holds decisions and directives to enhance and reinforce regional cooperation in various fields being undertaken under the umbrella of SAARC. Up until now, eighteen SAARC summits have been held. The 19th SAARC Summit was supposed to be hosted by Pakistan in November 2016. However, it was cancelled due to a sudden change in SAARC’s story followed by a cross-border terror attack on an Indian Army base camp in Uri, Kashmir in September 2016. According to Indian officials, the attack was executed by Islamist militant groups that were highly trained, heavily armed, and militarily equipped in Pakistan (BBC News, 2016). Following the attack, India blamed Pakistan for its continued and direct support to terrorist groups. However, Pakistan denied any role in these events. These incidents accelerated the long-standing rivalry between India and Pakistan making their fraught relations even frostier. Consequently, India withdrew from the November 2016 SAARC summit to be held in Islamabad, Pakistan (Dutta, 2019). The emergence of new tensions between India-Pakistan made other member countries to express their inability in making the summit happen. Since then, SAARC’s activities have been in a deadlock with little or no significant yields. Naturally, there has been debates and discussions among academicians and foreign affair experts from the region concerning whether the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) could become a substitute for SAARC.
In this article, I elaborate on this question by investigating the activities of SAARC and BIMSTEC in the region. This article argues that, SAARC as a regional body has failed to achieve the aspirations of regional integration in South Asia mainly due to consistent differences and disagreements between India and Pakistan. Moreover, I argue that India being on rise as a cardinal global economy longs to counter China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific by stretching its strategic arms to Southeast Asia, making BIMSTEC as a nexus between South Asia and Southeast Asia. And in doing so, India is in the verge of losing its clout in its immediate periphery, SAARC, which if becomes a reality will be a lose-lose situation for all the stakeholders of South Asia. Most importantly, this article explores the dysfunctional nature of SAARC and emerging realities of BIMSTEC. Thereupon, it assesses if BIMSTEC can become an alternative to SAARC.
This article is structured as follows. The first section presents a brief introduction to SAARC and BIMSTEC. The second section provides a theoretical background for such organizations, making its point of departure in the analysis of Regional Organizations (ROs) and the idea of regional integration. Third section of this article presents an overview of the activities of SAARC and assesses its various initiatives, failures, and the main reasons behind them. Fourth section discusses how BIMSTEC has increasingly been prioritized by a major regional player of South and Southeast Asia as a vehicle of strategic, economic and security collaboration among others. Transpiring from all the previous sections, the fifth section discusses the implications of transition from SAARC to BIMSTEC for all South Asian countries. The final section concludes with a summary.
SAARC and BIMSTEC: An Introduction
SAARC was established on 8 December 1985 when the heads of state of seven South Asian countries, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka officially signed the SAARC charter in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Afghanistan joined SAARC in 2007 making it a union of eight South Asian states. As mentioned in the SAARC charter, the objectives of the association are “to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life; to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potentials; to promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia; to contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems; to promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields; to strengthen cooperation with other developing countries; to strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interests; and to cooperate with international and regional organizations with similar aims and purposes” (SAARC website, n.d.). A SAARC Secretariat was established on 17 January 1987 in Kathmandu, Nepal. The Secretariat performs a role of coordination, monitoring, and implementation of SAARC activities, facilitates the meetings of the association, and acts as a conduit of communication with other international organizations. The secretariat is led by the Secretary General under whom directors from each member states and general services staffs are constituted. By 2021 there are nine Observers to SAARC, namely, Australia, China, the European Union (EU), Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea, and the United States of America (USA). These observer states are invited to take part in the opening and closing sessions of the SAARC summits (SAARC website, n.d.).
On the other hand, BIMSTEC was established on 6 June 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration. The declaration that was signed by Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, later came to be known as the ‘Bangkok Declaration’. At present, BIMSTEC consists of seven member states out of which five member states are also the member of SAARC namely, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and two member states are from Southeast Asia, namely Myanmar and Thailand. Myanmar and Thailand are also the member of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is a regional organization that promotes economic, political and security cooperation between its members. Myanmar joined BIMSTEC on 22 December 1997. Nepal and Bhutan are the newest members of BIMSTEC which were admitted through the sixth Ministerial Meeting held in Thailand in February 2004. A permanent secretariat of BIMSTEC was established on 13 September 2014 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The seven member states of BIMSTEC lie in the littoral and adjacent belts of the Bay of Bengal forming a proximate regional unity. The objective of BIMSTEC framework is to promote accelerated growth in various common interest areas by advancing cooperation, mitigating the asymmetries caused by globalization, employing regional resources, and harnessing geographical advantages. Unlike SAARC and many other regional alliances, BIMSTEC is a sector-driven institution. Since its establishment, fourteen priority sectors of cooperation have been identified through BIMSTEC ministerial summit held on different occasions namely, trade and investment, transport and communication, energy, tourism, technology, fisheries, agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counterterrorism and transnational crime, environment and disaster management, people-to-people contact, cultural cooperation and climate change (BIMSTEC website). These sectors have been divided among the member countries where each lead handful of sector(s). BIMSTEC member countries meet regularly at different levels, like BIMSTEC summits, ministerial meetings, senior officials’ meetings, and expert group meetings.
As a sub-regional cooperation initiative, BIMSTEC is heterogenous as it involves both small and less developed countries, middle-income country and one of the world’s most populous countries. With the gradual development of a Free Trade Area (FTA) since 2004, this regional organization promotes economic liberalization, enhancement, and facilitation of trade in goods, investments, and services. The FTA was set up to encourage trade and investment among the partner states and attract outsiders for trade and investment in BIMSTEC countries (Goyal & Madan, 2019). As such, the framework represents a comprehensive economic cooperation that goes beyond trade cooperation as it also holds implications for state regulations.
A comparison of the sectors covered by SAARC and BIMSTEC is indicated in Table 1.
Table 1: Areas of Cooperation of SAARC and BIMSTEC
|1. Human resource development and Tourism||1. Trade and Investment|
|2. Agriculture and Rural Development||2. Transport and Communication|
|3.Environment, Natural Disasters and Biotechnology||3. Energy|
|4.Economic, Trade and Finance||4. Tourism|
|5.Social Affairs||5. Technology|
|6. Information and Poverty Alleviation||6. Fisheries|
|7.Energy, Transport, Science and Technology||7. Agriculture|
|8. Education, Security and Culture||8. Public Health|
|9. Poverty Alleviation|
|10. Counterterrorism & Transnational crime|
|11. Environment & Disaster management|
|12. People-to-People contact|
|13. Cultural Cooperation|
|14. Climate Change|
From table 1, we can observe that the areas of cooperation of SAARC and BIMSTEC overlap with each other, primarily on trade and investment, energy and connectivity, and human development.
To enhance the understanding for the rationale of regional organizations such as SAARC and BIMSTEC, I now turn to literatures on Regional Organizations.
Regional Organizations (ROs): A theoretical backdrop
According to international relations scholar, Manmohini Kaul, most Regional Integration Agreements (RIAs) evolve when countries acknowledge a commonality on some undeniable economic, political or security interests by mitigating differences and divergences far as possible (Kaul, 2006). Moreover, regional approach is inspired by the conceived potential benefits by ‘reducing the chances of conflict with neighbors’ involving neighboring countries in the negotiation to reach the agreements for sharing regional resources (Schiff & Winters, 2003 pg. 71). In the history of International Relations (IR), most of the ROs were set up mainly for the economic cooperation. Today, they are successively including strategic and security cooperation as a critical constituent of their operational layouts. By presenting the phenomenon pertaining to the reinvigoration of BIMSTEC and India’s economic, strategic and security concerns, Kumar (2020)emphasizes that, regional alliances in Asia are molding the domestic and foreign policy of the member countries. Furthermore, they are also playing an influential role to pursue the strategic and security linked foreign policy agenda within Asia and beyond by promoting the values and interests of regional alliances.
As stated by a political scientist and diplomat, Gareth Evans, the economic and security cooperation objectives of ROs are achieved through enhanced intergovernmental dialogue nurtured with the idea of interdependence and cooperation among the member state (Evans, 2013). In this context, European Union (EU) is apparently one of the most distinctive conflict prevention mechanisms ever formed considering the history of Western Europe ravaged by the second world war. Similarly, there are other regional associations which have had a fair success on both security and economic cooperation. For instance, the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the South African Development Community (SADC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In the past, the countries belonging to these alliances have had endemic conflict between them. However, today, such conflicts are essentially unthinkable between its member states. Contrastingly, SAARC created with more or less similar objectives have not progressed to anything like other regional and sub-regional organizations (Evans, 2013). Leading South Asia expert Bhumitra Chakma in his book titled South Asian Regionalism, The Limits of Cooperation (2020), argues that, the path to South Asian regionalism should have created a sense of cross-boundary awareness, common identity or a ‘regional imagined community’ by means of widespread cross-border transactions, interaction, and socialization. Through SAARC, South Asian regionalism quested for new identity against the backdrop of post-partition antagonism, countervailing forces, uniting, and promoting South Asian diversity, solving intra-regional conflicts & disagreement, and collaborating against the challenges of globalization. Over the past 30 years since the establishment of the SAARC, there has been no significant achievement to overcome the forces of national identities and mutual hostility among the regional states (Chakma, 2020 pg. 163). Intra-regional conflicts, chiefly India and Pakistan continues to re-emerge due to diverging interests and broader disagreements between them. In the next section, I take a closer look at the spectacular failure of SAARC.
The Failure of SAARC
The SAARC mechanisms operate mainly through formal and informal meetings. Such meetings provide platform and an opportunity to discuss on difficult bilateral relations, easing tensions, pooling of technical resources, expertise, national experiences and even the regional financing. According to international relations scholar, Padmaja Murthy, SAARC had a roadmap for achieving the aspiration of a developed South Asia on every essential issue one can think of. SAARC’s summit declarations and decisions from various other meetings were always promising. However, when it comes to the implementation phase, it is blamed to take things unserious. Furthermore, there are no reliable mechanisms to cross-evaluate whether the decisions, action plans and agreements are implemented. There has been an extensive discussions among the political class and the academia regarding the slow or no movement of SAARC’s declarations to an implementation phase (Murthy, 2008).
Nevertheless, SAARC has made a commendable accomplishment when it comes to setting up more elaborative institutional arrangements which are permanent in nature, for instance, specialized bodies and SAARC regional centers in different member countries. The specialized bodies of SAARC are, SAARC Development Fund, responsible for funding project-based collaboration, South Asian University, responsible for academic transmission, recognition of degrees and certificates, South Asian Regional Standards Organization, responsible for performing technical tasks and cooperation in the fields of meteorology, accreditation and conformity assessment, SAARC Arbitration Council, responsible for cost-effective settlement of dispute via arbitration. Similarly, SAARC regional centers are, SAARC Agriculture Centre, Dhaka, responsible for networking agricultural knowledge and information systems, SAARC Energy Centre, Islamabad, responsible for facilitating the integration of energy strategies within the region, SAARC Cultural Centre, Colombo, responsible for the promotion of regional unity through cultural integration and intercultural dialogue, SAARC Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS Center, Kathmandu, responsible for the prevention and control of such diseases by exchanging information, research and capacity building, SAARC Disaster Management Center, India, responsible for supporting member countries in their disaster risk reduction initiative through collaborative research (SAARC website, n.d.).
Apart from the apex level summits which captures higher media attention, several other parallel meetings take place through SAARC arrangements, like, meetings among government officials and non-governmental organizations from different member countries. More recently, and as a part of long-standing tradition, it was expected that an informal in-person meeting of foreign ministers of SAARC would take place on the sidelines of the 76th UN General Assembly held on 25 September 2021. Nepal, being a current chair of the SAARC invited all member states except Afghanistan due to its recent change in regime led by Islamist fundamentalist organization, Taliban during mid-august 2021. However, the meeting was cancelled when Pakistan articulated its concerns over leaving out the representative from Afghanistan. Simply put, “no concurrence” among the member states was reached. Nevertheless, Nepal has formally expressed that, it has pursued a “neutral” policy when it came to the Taliban government takeover in Afghanistan (Giri, 2021). This is just one example of how a common consensus could not be made in the SAARC. With this as a recent backdrop, let me assess the activities of SAARC further and examine how far it has come in achieving the regional aspirations of South Asians.
There are numerous agreements that have been signed and several institutional apparatuses set up under SAARC. Nevertheless, they have hardly been executed. For instance, the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) which came into effect as early as 2006 as a remarkable outcome of SAARC has not been implemented. South Asian economies trade better with distant economies than with their own neighbors. This is reflected in the intra-regional trade, which is at mere five percent (Bhattacharjee, 2018; Kathuria, 2018; World Bank, 2016). The intraregional trade as a percentage of total trade is 25% in Southeast Asia, 35% in East Asia and 60% in Europe. Compared to these regions, South Asia is clearly the least integrated region in the world. It is projected that India can trade 20% cheaper with distant Brazil than with adjoining Pakistan (World Bank, 2016). The significant barriers to their trade relations are decades-old mistrust and animosity between them. Additionally, prevailing tariff and non-tariff barriers like, sensitive lists, inadequate trade agreements, strict visa regimes, lengthy procedures, circuitous route to markets, congested border crossings and lack of transportation contributes to the insubstantial trade potential in South Asia (Malik, 2020; World Bank, 2016).
According to South Asian scholar, Bhumitra Chakma, SAFTA had potential to encourage free trade among the SAARC countries as agreement contained various arrangements that would provide special and differential treatment for the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), for instance, sensitive lists of trading goods, rules of origin, ways for compensation of revenue losses and extents of technical assistance for the LDCs among others (Chakma, 2020). In November 2011, India was set to grant duty-free access to goods traded from five SAARC countries and by 2016 the framework agreement was made to lessen custom duties of all traded goods to zero (Ding & Masha, 2012). However, as due date approached, it was extended indefinitely. As a matter of fact, in South Asia, the settlement of disputes related to cross-boundary trade takes much longer time compared to Southeast Asian regional groupings (Sen et al., 2019). Clearly, SAARC countries failed to execute the SAFTA agreement that was supposed to be fully functional by 2016.
Among other barricades, the growth of regional value chains and investment in South Asia have always been constrained by visa regimes. Not just the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) but also the intraregional trade in service sectors, for instance, tourism, education and medical services are confined by visa regimes (Kathuria, 2018). Though SAARC visa exemption scheme was launched in 1992, it is just limited to certain categories of dignitaries (SAARC website, n.d.). Due to the limitations in intraregional mobility, an increase in international travel by other actors in South Asia cannot be expected. Therefore, unlike successful regional bodies like EU through its Schengen visa regulation apparatus, visa regime in SAARC countries constrains intraregional people-to-people contact and business environments among others.
By 2021, South Asia remains one of the least integrated regions in the world. The region has very little intra-regional flow of goods, capital, and ideas. The cross-border investment, royalty payments, movement of people, purchase and exchange of technology and innovation, or even the number of cross-border telephone calls are all faint in South Asia. As an illustration, only 7% of the international calls in South Asia are regional, compared to 71% for the East Asian regional groupings. Apart from the visa regulation regime, and as discussed earlier, the least intra-regional trade in South Asia is due to several factors like, regional strategic rivalry and tensions and insufficient physical infrastructures and connectivity among others (Sen et al., 2019).
Unquestionably, all South Asian countries share comparable developmental challenges. However, economy of India is asymmetrically larger than its neighbors’. It is estimated that, India holds 80% of the region’s GDP, Pakistan 10%, Bangladesh 6%, Sri Lanka 2% and the remaining lesser than 2% (Ding & Masha, 2012; Sen et al., 2019). It can be argued that India has a major role in key economic involvement in the region, however, it has clearly failed to do so resulting into lower intra-regional trade.
According to the Indian scholar of economic diplomacy N. Chandra Mohan, the prime cause of deferment of the 19th SAARC summit that was to be held in November 2016 in Pakistan is due to the cross-border terror attack on an Indian armed camp in Uri of Jammu and Kashmir region (Mohan, 2016). Against this backdrop, unless the discussions on the issue of cross-border terrorism are initiated either by Pakistan or India, SAARC activities are bound to be impeded. Contextually, since the Uri attack, India as a major regional player has prioritized BIMSTEC to address the precarious regional cooperation in South Asia. BIMSTEC as an alternative strategy is to a large extent ‘SAARC minus Pakistan’, with the addition of Myanmar and Thailand as key stakeholders. Moreover, there is always a welcoming gesture to other SAARC states like Afghanistan and Maldives to eventually join BIMSTEC at appropriate time (Mohan, 2016). Meanwhile, other regional players like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have been consistently advocating for the reanimation of the older and bigger regional organization, SAARC, while also noting India’s growing involvement in BIMSTEC (Bhatia, 2020).
Nepal, which hosts the SAARC secretariat and was chairing the SAARC during and after the Uri attack in 2016 has taken a stand in favor of SAARC’s revival. Across political division, Nepalese diplomats accept that BIMSTEC is a better platform to connect with Southeast Asia but argue that it cannot be promoted at the cost of SAARC. The regional bloc, SAARC is marked by common South Asian history, culture, identity, and diversity with distinct commonalities. Nepal reckons that, Pakistan which is the venue for postponed 19th SAARC summit in 2016 has not done enough to address the issue concerning cross-border terrorism (Parashar, 2019). According to the Kathmandu-based journalist and writer, Kamal Dev Bhattarai, SAARC can only be reinvigorated by executing damage control measures such as making the 19th SAARC summit happen at the earliest, avoiding hostile attitudes against each other, implementing previous decisions made by SAARC and adopting a forward-thinking approach. Nostalgia will not help. For this to happen, however, a cordial relation between India and Pakistan is a must, which has now become very difficult to attain (Bhattarai, 2021).
Having said that, India’s shift from SAARC to BIMSTEC is also due to several other interrelated reasons, for instance, India’s ‘Act East Policy’ (AEP), the failure of SAARC member states to sign the SAARC–Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) and the failure of India’s proposed SAARC satellite project, among others (Bhattacharjee, 2018; Kumar, 2020). India concurs that BIMSTEC is its ingenuous platform to execute its foreign policy priorities of “Act East” and “Neighborhood First” (Government of India, 2017). “Act East” is an effort that emerged as a successor of “Look East” policy initiative of India during the 1990s which seeks to develop extensive economic and strategic relations with ASEAN countries and the extended neighbors in the Asia-Pacific. On the flip side, the “Neighborhood First” policy is designed for SAARC member countries which focuses on peaceful relations and collaborative synergetic co-development with India’s immediate South Asian neighbors. In this context, for India, BIMSTEC likely serves as a nexus between ‘Act East’ and ‘Neighborhood First’. The Modi government in India, which came to power in 2014, has concluded that any attempt of regional integration in South Asia would not yield any fruitful results (Gupta, 2018). From this perspective, SAARC is unlikely to bear fruits as long as Pakistan is a member. Moreover, from this point of view, BIMSTEC is a likely alternative to achieve the objective of integration in the rest of South Asia. Such foreign policy priorities clearly indicate India’s newfound interest in the BIMSTEC.
At the peak of Covid-19 global crisis during 2020, there was however a hope that SAARC mechanisms would be re-activated. During mid-March, a high-level meeting was conducted virtually, and all the SAARC member states agreed to create a Covid-19 Emergency Fund and voluntarily pitched funds in several million. This impromptu virtual summit was initiated by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi where all SAARC heads of states attended the conference, except for Pakistan, which was represented by the special assistant to the PM of Pakistan on health (Hussain, 2020). In a video conference, Indo-Pak standoff was clearly observed when Pakistan used the platform to make remarks on disputed issues of Kashmir region. In return, India later stated that Pakistan had misused the forum (Bhattarai, 2021). This high-level conference was first of its kind after the indefinite postponement of the November 2016 SAARC summit. It gave a rising hope in South Asia but eventually and as anticipated, the establishment of a regionwide Covid-19 relief program never materialized. This event reflects India’s approach of keeping SAARC at arm’s length and Pakistan’s choice to send a representative of lesser authority (Pakistani Prime Minister failed to participate in the conference). Seemingly, both the regional giants India and Pakistan are not sufficiently serious to take SAARC mechanism on a next level.
The policy briefs that have been issued by Indian government officials, ministers, think tanks and civil society during the recent years clearly suggests that India is pushing BIMSTEC as an alternative to SAARC (Bhattarai, 2021). Moreover, India is rising as one of the cardinal global economies, therefore, India’s inclinations and priorities influences the priorities of other member states which are part of the same ROs. In this perspective, it is apparent that India is keen to diplomatically isolate its western neighbor, Pakistan, by prioritizing BIMSTEC in place of SAARC. In such circumstances, if Pakistan is uninterested in solving the bilateral disputes with India, other South Asian neighbors are likely to go along with India’s shift toward BIMSTEC.
The Revival of BIMSTEC
Since its inception in 1997, BIMSTEC member countries have been advancing their relationship both qualitatively and quantitatively through several ministerial level meetings. However, an extra attention was placed to BIMSTEC when the 2016 SAARC summit was postponed due to rising tensions between India and Pakistan (Rahman & Grewal, 2017). A surge in the Indian interest to revitalize BIMSTEC can be enciphered to several push and pull factors in Indian foreign policy. Primarily, India’s priorities erupts out of its security concerns vis-à-vis Pakistan and economic prospects through greater connectivity with South and Southeast Asian states (Desai, 2018). Additionally, it stems out of India’s concern about Chinese presence in the Asia-Pacific.
During the 2014 swearing-in ceremony of Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, India invited SAARC’s heads of state including those from Pakistan. Five years afterwards, following the repeated victory of PM Modi’s party in the 2019 general election, he invited the BIMSTEC leaders and heads of state for his swearing-in ceremony instead. However, prior to this, the renewed momentum of BIMSTEC can be traced back to a Goa retreat with leaders from member states hosted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi just one month after 2016 Uri attack. According to the foreign policy and security studies scholar, Constantino Xavier, Indian officials often mark this retreat as “a de facto summit meeting.” In its concluding document, seven member states committed to promote BIMSTEC as an ideal, more effective and result oriented platform to advance peace, stability, and prosperity by capitalizing historical, geographical, cultural, natural and human resources of the region (Xavier, 2018). These episodes clearly indicates that, India is putting its diplomatic energies on BIMSTEC. India’s amplified emphasis of BIMSTEC is not just aimed at isolating Pakistan, it also seeks to execute its foreign policy paradigm—“Act East” combined with strategic motivations of diluting China’s influence and presence in the periphery of India (Ramachandran, 2019). Every neighboring country of India except Bhutan is a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is an economic belt that seeks to connect China with Southeast Asia, South Asia, South Pacific, Central Asia, Middle East, Eastern Africa, Russia, Europe, with land and a sea route, often referred to as a 21st century Maritime Silk Road. It is aimed at advancing regional integration, expanding trade, and inducing economic growth. Specifically, the BRI initiative delineates five major priorities— policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, financial integration, unobstructed trade and connecting people (Website of European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, n.d.).
Post-independence India gets a sense of discomfiture when the “extra regional” powers come to the aid of India’s neighbors. Specifically, China’s presence with its intent and capabilities to open a new avenue in the South Asian region is a matter of concern to India. A large part of India’s diplomatic energies has already been lost while struggling with Pakistan. In parallel, China’s growing economic and political engagement in India’s periphery is indicating a change of the very idea of what South Asian geography means. Contextually, India is reimagining its strategic geography realizing the evolving realities of a “new” South Asia. Therefore, BIMSTEC as a potential breakthrough that would link South Asia with sizable Southeast Asia is acquiring currency among India’s present policy makers (Pant, 2018).
With a combined population of 1.6 billion which is 22% of the world’s total population and 3 trillion US Dollar economy in terms of Gross Domestic Product, BIMSTEC has a huge potential. Despite this, BIMSTEC has rarely made notable splashes in the world arena. In the last two decades, only three apex level BIMSTEC summits were held making little progress on just technical cooperation. Nevertheless, it is regaining the momentum since marking its 20th anniversary in 2017. India, one of the most prominent members of BIMSTEC has pledged to undertake more frequent high-level meetings that would elevate the global profile of BIMSTEC (Kongrut, 2020).
At a time when SAARC activities have proven ineffective, emerging discourses are spreading entailing that BIMSTEC has become a playground to isolate Pakistan in South Asia (Eyben, 2018). Likewise, as discussed earlier, it also acts as an apparatus to counter China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific. However, it is not just on India’s interest, BIMSTEC will also act as a vehicle to boost Thailand’s “Look West” Policy (Ramachandran, 2019). For Thailand, India is a gateway to South Asia and beyond. In addition to economic ties, Thailand and India have mutual interests concerning strategic issues like defense and maritime security throughout the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea (Mishra & Hashmi, 2012). The comprehensive cooperation between these two big economies can potentially help to gain multiple range of economic and security benefits for the smaller economies of BIMSTEC.
In South Asia, there is a popular perception that Indo-Pak tensions have prompted the SAARC to be in all time hostages. This perception is only partially true. If this was the only case, then BIMSTEC where Pakistan has no share should have already been progressing in the implementation of various regional programmes. Likewise, a sub-regional cooperation mechanism in SAARC involving Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal Growth Quadrangle (BBIN-GQ) would also have materialized (Murthy, 2008). These instances in South Asia clearly indicates that there are many layers of embedded trust deficit in these regional groupings of which Indo-Pak discrepancies is just one in many.
The reasons for trust deficit in South Asia can be dissected from multiple angles. For instance, due to the ‘perceived or real anticipation’ that some member countries could get more advantage than others resulting into some sorts of dominance; or that some member countries must compromise their sovereignty while implementing the regional cooperation projects. Pakistan, for instance, refused to sign the trans- South Asian road connectivity project during the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November 2014. The pact was on the Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) which could regulate the passenger, personnel, and cargo vehicular traffic in South Asia. The Maldives and Sri Lanka being not connected by land were not a part of it and Afghanistan could have been integrated within MVA pact only if Pakistan was on board. Consequently, the sub-grouping referred as Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal— Motor Vehicle Agreement (BBIN- MVA) was formed. Experts believed that transport corridors were also economic corridors which could potentially boost intraregional trade in South Asia by nearly 60% and trade with the rest of the world by 30% (Pant, 2016). However, down the line, Bhutan too backtracked from its support to BBIN MVA pact after its parliament refused to ratify the MVA agreement that was agreed by all four BBIN countries. The main concern indicated by the parliament of Bhutan was on increased vehicular traffic and resulting air pollution in their territory which “prides itself” on ecological sensitivity (The Hindu Editorial, 2017; Pant, 2016). Down to just three countries, now the pact is referred as BIN MVA pact which is still not enforced. If we look from this perspective, the new global currency called “connectivity” which could stimulate economic growth and prosperity by securing both trade and energy needs for the countries in route is clearly not attainable by SAARC as a regional grouping. Against this backdrop, BIMSTEC appears as silver linings amid the dark clouds hovering over the SAARC. As far as, there is no visible rivalry between the member countries in BIMSTEC, therefore, there are potentials for the attainment of connectivity canvas by even stretching it further to ASEAN economies.
BIMSTEC as a major multilateral institution is seeking regional cooperation to overcoming the divide between South and Southeast Asia, the bloc is also examining the possibilities for a regional currency. However, it faces challenges in the areas of expanding its fiscal and staffing capacities, developing strategically advance regional connectivity in several areas of cooperation (fourteen branches of focus). Nevertheless, it also has a critical opportunity to overcome years of relative sluggishness and restore the initial spirit that propelled it during early 2000s (Xavier, 2018).
Implications of South Asia’s Transition from SAARC to BIMSTEC
As discussed in the introductory section, the priority areas of BIMSTEC overlaps with the priority areas of SAARC despite going even further. However, these two entities were established with different visions and by assimilating different geographies. According to diplomatic affairs editor of The Hindu, Suhasini Haider, building the foundations of BIMSTEC over the grave of SAARC is both unreasonable and conflicting to the founding principles of these organizations. SAARC as a regional body manifests South Asian identities of member states historically and contemporarily. South Asia as a region reflects the naturally formed geographical identity, cultural, religious, linguistic, and culinary resemblance. Moreover, even the rivers and weather conditions flow naturally from one South Asian state to the other, so do the films, poetry, literature, humor, food, and entertainment (Haidar, 2019)due to the commonalities of language and culture. Therefore, it is far more reasonable to term SAARC as an absolute regional organization.
On the other hand, member countries of BIMSTEC lack common identity and history among others. Therefore, BIMSTEC is more like interregional economic bloc and a bridgebuilder connecting South Asia with ASEAN. Seemingly, despite the overlapping geography and priority areas, they are not equal alternatives. In terms of goals and functions, SAARC and BIMSTEC complement each other instead of competing. Clearly, the success of one organization does not depict the setback of the other but only adds value in the path of regional cooperation. Therefore, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Maldives are consistently underscoring the importance of restoring the SAARC cooperation without any delay (Bhattarai, 2021).
The former prime minister of Nepal, KP Sharma Oli, stated the following while paying a visit to the SAARC headquarters in Kathmandu, Nepal on 3 February 2020.
“Neighborhood relations and regional cooperation are one of the priorities of our foreign policy. As a founding member and current Chair of SAARC, Nepal strongly believes in regional cooperation in order to promote collective well-being of the people of South Asia……. SAARC is an expression of our regional solidarity in South Asia. It has become a common identity for the people of this region…. It represents hope of over 1.7 billion people for this region for accelerated economic growth, social progress and cultural development” (SAARC website, n.d.).
Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina on her first visit to India after becoming the PM for the third consecutive term and while addressing India-Bangladesh business forum made a similar remark:
"The fundamental way in moving ahead is to celebrate our region's diversity, ethnicity and language. We need to hold hands across South Asia to build mutual trust and respect" (BusinessToday.In, 2019).
However, emphasizing the need of regional integration in South Asia, former Sri Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe talking at the event, The Huddle 2020, The Hindu’s annual thought conclave stated that:
“SAARC is deadlocked. While BIMSTEC is not a substitute for SAARC, it is, nevertheless a starting point for integration” (Srinivasan, 2020).
The foreign ministry of Maldives in a statement urged fellow South Asian nations to build a conducive environment. The statement “encouraged states to provide a valuable opportunity for the leaders to discuss critical issues facing the region and expressed hope that the required measures will be taken by relevant member states to convene the summit at an early date” (Maldives Independent, 2016).
Nevertheless, as an outsider, Norwegian ambassador to Bangladesh Sidsel Bleken disclosed that, despite having large population, economic growth and significant strategic position, South Asia as a region does not draw more global attention when it comes to trade and investment. Compared to SAARC as a region, China, ASEAN and even the African Union (AU) pulls more global attention (The Daily Star, 2019). In this remark, it is important to note that neither SAARC nor BIMSTEC (it was not even mentioned) has become sufficiently appealing to international communities beyond this region.
India, being the largest power of South Asia is undoubtedly setting its own priorities to become globally competitive in different areas. However, it cannot bypass the realities of its peripheral neighbors that are exposed to fragmentation dwelling into the puzzle of SAARC and BIMSTEC. Furthermore, even the idea of keeping Pakistan isolated in the South and Southeast Asian ROs will not fulfill all of India’s strategic needs. Pakistan is already a member of several other international organizations. To illustrate one, Pakistan is a member of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Eurasian political, economic, and security alliance. Along with Pakistan, India also holds the membership of SCO. Apart from that, Pakistan is deepening its relationship with China and has taken a part in its prestigious BRI initiative. Therefore, in a multipolar world, no countries in the world can be isolated just because of existing bilateral tensions between them.
Likewise, from the perspective of smaller members of SAARC, Pakistan has clearly not done enough to initiate and build a mutual trust over the grave of mistrust and suspicion with its neighbor, India. Apparently, if India and Pakistan are serious about the future of regional cooperation in South Asia, they need to address bilateral disputes not just pertaining to cross-border terrorism but also to economic integration, regional connectivity, and other issues.
Moreover, at a time when South Asia as a region is in verge of being left out of its productivity potential in global fora, both India and Pakistan need to be pragmatic and flexible to advance our regional cooperation. Conjointly, smaller economies of SAARC including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives should launch a substantial diplomatic move to create a conducive environment for dialogue between the conflicting partners of SAARC.
Out of many stumbling blocks, Indo-Pak tensions and disagreement has always been a major cause behind very low (or non-functional) nature of the SAARC. Consequently, South Asia continues to remain one of the least integrated regions in the world with very little intra-regional flow of goods, capital, and ideas.
A surge of India’s interest to revitalize BIMSTEC is undoubtedly due to its security concerns vis-à-vis Pakistan and economic prospects through greater connectivity with South and Southeast Asian states. In parallel, it has also stemmed out of China’s growing economic and political engagements in the peripheries of India. Subsequently, BIMSTEC as a multilateral institution is gaining regional currency seeking cooperation by bridging South and Southeast Asia. However, one should also clearly recognize that, the prioritization of BIMSTEC will mostly be attempts of developing extra-regional bloc rather than explicitly strengthening the regional cooperation within South Asia. Despite the overlapping geography and priority areas, these two organizations are not equal alternatives likely to replace one by the other. SAARC is purely regional organization in the sense that, member countries are embedded with common history, geographical proximity, identity, and regional values among others. Moreover, all SAARC countries share similar developmental challenges that can only be solved when they work in unity. On the flip side, BIMSTEC can connect South Asia with the economies of ASEAN acting as inter-regional organization. Therefore, BIMSTEC is clearly a complementing body to SAARC and vice versa.
As a matter of fact, SAARC countries are suffering from regional politics of mistrust and suspicion. Contrarily, BIMSTEC countries are reasonably maintaining friendly relations by sharing strategic trust amongst each other. Thereupon, both India and Pakistan can learn from BIMSTEC on matters concerning asymmetric power balance and harmonious relations for creating a win-win situation for all the stakeholders of South Asia.
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