Dr DK Giri
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has pledged to host the next SAARC summit, which was suspended after the URI attack. Khan suggests that SAARC can be put back on track if “man-made obstacles” are removed. Its Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi called India’s stubborn obstacle in refusing to travel to Islamabad in November 2016 for the meeting. India refused to attend the meeting after the attack on a military camp in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir on September 18 of the same year. Islamabad has offered India to virtually join the 19th SAARC summit this year if Indian leaders cannot come to Islamabad.
Incidentally, the SAARC meetings could not take place for various reasons. Member countries disagree on several points. The 2016 Islamabad summit was canceled not only by New Delhi’s refusal, but other countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan also refused to join.
It was only recently, in September 2021, that the meeting of foreign gentlemen was canceled. There was no agreement on the participation of Afghanistan, which had suffered a military churn. While Pakistan vehemently opposed the idea of ​​any participation by the Ghani administration, other members decided to keep an empty chair as a symbolic participation of Afghanistan. In addition, Pakistan’s idea of ​​including a member of the Taliban has been contested by others. So, the summit was ultimately called off by the host, Nepal.
As a reminder, SAARC – South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was created in December 1985. It includes 8 countries; India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan. Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The main objective of SAARC has been to improve the collective well-being of the population through regional cooperation in social progress and economic development. Since its inception, SAARC has organized 18 summits. It works through regional organizations and institutions. Some of the most notable are: the University of South Asia, New Delhi; SAARC Regional Standards Organization, Dhaka; SAARC Development Fund, Thimphu, SAARC Arbitration Council, Islamabad.
As previously stated, SAARC has been dysfunctional since 2016, as it did not hold its important biennial summits after the last one in Kathmandu in 2014. Note that SAARC operates on the principles of consensus and that a summit could not have take place if only one country refused to participate. While proposing to restore the holding of summits, Prime Minister Khan reiterated that SAARC can be a potential vehicle for the commons in South Asia. It can provide “an enabling and beneficial atmosphere to create economic synergies that can transform the quality of life of the people of South Asia”
The optimism displayed by Prime Minister Khan has been contradicted by criticism from his Foreign Minister Qureshi. He listed a litany of complaints and grievances against New Delhi. To begin with, he said that Hindutva’s influence over India’s foreign policy is spoiling India-Pakistan ties. Second, the usual objection to any normalization of relations is the unresolved problem of Kashmir.
Clearly, relations between India and Pakistan have deteriorated after New Delhi made fundamental administrative changes to Kashmir in 2019 – removing Article 370 which gave special provisions to Kashmiris, splitting the state in two. Union territories. Qureshi asserted that “resolving the Jammu and Kashmir dispute is a prerequisite for lasting peace and stability in South Asia.” Finally, the great strategic and ideological, Qureshi bluntly blamed that “economic development and regional cooperation have been held hostage by the hegemonic and hostile behavior of India”.
With such harsh diplomatic language expressing deep grievances, how could Imran Khan revive SAARC? It is a pipe dream unless the leaders of both countries reflect deeply on the mistakes of the past and pontificate on the future. And if SAARC is not restructured, it dies of natural causes. New Delhi has already launched other regional groupings like BIMSTEC-Bay of Bengal Initiative for multisectoral technical and economic cooperation including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. This new regional body includes five ASACR countries.
To revive SAARC, two things must happen. One, a thaw in hostility between India and Pakistan like that experienced by France and Germany which led to the formation of the European Economic Community, etc. in 1958, now the European Union. Islamabad and New Delhi must start a dialogue without preconditions. This prospect is unlikely as each country is caught up in a great power rivalry between the United States on the one hand and China on the other. New Delhi is trying to strike a delicate balance by keeping Russia in a good mood to negotiate some semblance of cooperation with Beijing.
Second, to be functional as a regional body, SAARC needs to undertake organizational reform. The European Union started by consensus, but then moved on to Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) as no decision was actually taken. The European Union is by far the best example of regional integration to follow, despite Britain’s latest. The UK’s exit from the EU is due more to its own political perspectives than to problems within the European Union.
The European Union started out as a customs union and then evolved into a free trade area. It initially excluded contentious security and foreign policy issues. It gradually built the institutions – Parliament, European Commission (executive body), Council, European Courts, etc. From the European Economic Community, it became a community of counties called the European Community. Finally, in 1992, thanks to the synergy of political institutions, it became the political union, known as the European Union.
Three things have driven the progress of the European Union as it is today with the single citizenship and the single currency and so on. The collective will to prevent the repetition of wars. Second, foster growth and development by drawing resources from each country. To do this, they ceded part of their sovereignty and created supranational bodies through innovative institutional strengthening. Third, the largest country, namely Germany, was a full member of the integration process.
The ASACR is expected to adopt a similar trajectory. He cannot be held hostage to the whims and fancies of a single country. It should adopt the VMQ. At the same time, one country, ie India, could lead the integration process with or without Pakistan which could follow the British route in the European Union. But Pakistan would be safer and better within SAARC than jumping on China’s unpredictable train. Third, business and civil society should lead SAARC because they have a greater interest in its pursuit. It won’t be difficult to do this due to the common past, background and ancestry.
Thus, the option for SAARC is an Indo-Pakistani detente or a reorganization and reorientation of SAARC. It is up to Imran Khan to choose if he wants to relaunch SAARC! And it is up to Prime Minister Modi to react cautiously and appropriately !! (Infa)