SAARC Is Dead! Long Live Regional Cooperation – OpEd
By Amit Dasgupta*
The 19th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit is scheduled for November this year in Islamabad. As with previous SAARC summits, doubt persists as to whether the Summit would take place with all Heads of State/Government in attendance.
Pakistan has played its cards on Jammu and Kashmir and continues to justify cross-border terrorism through outright denial of complicity on the one hand and strong advocacy of freedom struggle and the rights of Kashmiris on the other. It even broke with protocol during the recent meeting of the Interior/Home Ministers to raise the Kashmir issue. Islamabad’s ability to do so again should not be doubted.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally played a strong hand by invoking Baloochistan and insisting that Pakistan vacate Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). This has dramatically changed the vocabulary much to Islamabad’s shock. Quite unexpectedly, Modi’s statement elicited public support from some of our neighbours causing Pakistan further angst.
These developments could very well jeopardize the November summit. At the same time, Pakistan might, in fact, be relieved if the Summit were deferred, as the safety and security of the SAARC Heads of State/Government could be a matter of serious concern that it might wish to avoid taking responsibility for. Terror attacks cannot be ruled out. Islamabad would also be reluctant to rein in Hafez Saeed and his LeT supporters as it could trigger a domestic backlash. Nor might Islamabad be able to rein in the more radicalized elements within the Pakistani military establishment and intelligence community. All of this significantly heightens the threat perception.
But a more important concern for Islamabad is how it would justify to its own people the holding of a summit, given SAARC’s abysmal record and Islamabad’s resistance to regional cooperation. Following a spate of terrorist attacks coupled with low economic well-being, the Pakistani public is in no mood for the lavish spectacle that the SAARC summits have been reduced to: pomp and splendour that lack in substance.
It is time, perhaps, to call a spade a spade and put an end to this farcical exercise. SAARC is dead. For a region that continues to be plagued by poverty and serious developmental challenges, it is time to projects that can substantively improve the quality of life in South Asia. Thirty years is a long time for some tough thinking and plain talking.
Given the geographical centrality India enjoys within SAARC, it is essential that New Delhi craft a regional programme that embeds sub-regional cooperation as part of its strategy. South Asian cooperation minus Pakistan would be a far more efficacious effort and would bring about prosperity not only to India’s neighbours but also to states contiguous to these countries. It would, furthermore, accelerate the pace of implementation and allow the region as a whole to prosper.
A large number of viable programmes can be introduced that would positively impact the social and economic wellbeing of the region, such as legally enforceable and joint operations to prevent human trafficking, joint research and collaboration to combat infectious diseases, such as dengue and/or swine flu, and other ailments such as polio, HIV/AIDS etc. Additionally, early warning systems for natural disasters and mobilization of rapid response teams for rescue and rehabilitation programmes. Given the emergence of radical groups, collaboration on cyber security and anti-terror operations would inject confidence in South Asia.
India also needs to recognize that all countries pursue relationships and interests that push their national agenda. Their key objective is in maximizing gains for itself. In this regard, countries will reach out to Beijing if they believe such overtures would give them more from New Delhi. This should not alarm us, unless it goes against our strategic and security imperatives, such as allowing Beijing to have a naval or air base near our borders.
We also need to recognize that Beijing will do what Beijing wants. The South China Sea example is clear evidence of Beijing’s rejection of what others, including the international community, feels it can or cannot do. This is a reality that New Delhi needs absorb while crafting its own strategic imperatives and interventions. Today, our focus needs to be in consolidating and building our strengths rather than in flexing muscles that we don’t yet have.
The great chess player Capablanca once advised that if we were to study chess, it is best to begin with the end game. Talking with Islamabad has been reduced to a meaningless exercise. This is because we do not have a clear picture of what precisely we hope to achieve through these discussions. Indeed, going by the current atmospherics, we are, once again, at the bottom of the let’s-talk ladder.
No negotiations can begin on an open-ended basis. There needs to be at least some measure of agreement in terms of what both sides would like the negotiations to achieve. Without this clarity, negotiations become routine and worthless. Washington ended decades of animosity with Teheran and with Havana because the three countries had agreed on a template that the negotiators could work towards. With regard to India-Pakistan relations, it is not possible to negotiate the future, since Islamabad insists on living in the past.
Great opportunities await the region. But there are great challenges that need to be overcome as well, so that our people may realize their aspirations and enjoy the fruits of economic and social wellbeing. Governments are judged by the ideas they embrace. Today, it is time to jettison an aspiration that has not worked and embrace one that has a far better chance of success. SAARC is dead! Long live regional cooperation!
*Amit Dasgupta, a former Indian diplomat, was Director at the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu from 1998-2002. Comments and suggestion on the article can be sent on: [email protected]