New Delhi has gravitated towards other regional groupings in recent years, but it has always used SAARC to achieve specific aims
On Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted a video conference with leaders of the countries comprising the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation for sharing strategies as well as exploring possibilities of a regional response to the coronavirus threat. India proposed a slew of measures, including the setting up of a Covid-19 emergency fund with an initial contribution of $10 million from it, putting together a rapid response team of doctors and specialists, and setting up an information system for disease surveillance.
As an initiative from the pivotal power in South Asia, India’s outreach showed the specific use of regional groupings such as SAARC. It was the first summit-level SAARC meeting since 2014. The proposed summit in 2016 in Islamabad had been called off after India decided to stay away in the wake of the Uri terror attack, and Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan followed suit. This latest use of the SAARC platform shows how India can employ the horses-for-courses principle in its regional diplomacy, and not get tied to one such group in the region.
However, in their initial reactions to India’s initiative, a few commentators and observers of the country’s foreign policy took potshots at its sudden rediscovery of SAARC. Such reactions show a lack of understanding of how SAARC has figured in India’s diplomatic recalibrations in South Asia since its inception in 1985. There isn’t anything surprising about India’s careful, even intermittent, use of SAARC, especially in light of New Delhi using other multilateral groups to pursue its interests in South Asia. In this context, two aspects of India’s spells of engagement as well as relative disinterest with SAARC need to be considered.
First, the realist school of India’s strategic thinking, and by extension, its foreign policy, has for decades viewed SAARC with circumspection. One may recall that writing at the onset of this century, foreign policy scholar professor Stephen Cohen had observed that India was “wary of SAARC” and instead preferred to deal with its South Asian neighbours on a bilateral basis. In his 2001 book India: Emerging Power, Cohen observes that the realist section of India’s strategic thinking has always been apprehensive of SAARC’s scope because the group doesn’t work in even one of the two conditions that India considers key to regional cooperation in South Asia.
The first of these conditions is the presence of a dominant and benevolent power that wields enough clout to regulate regional behaviour. Clearly, SAARC doesn’t have such an overarching power for regulating the international behaviour of regional actors. Second, the efficacy of such groups is dependent on the presence of a semblance of equally capable regional states. With huge power-asymmetry among its member states, SAARC doesn’t satisfy this condition either. Although some strategic thinkers argue that for limited purposes this asymmetry may work to India’s advantage, like in regional economic integration, the mismatch restricts the scope of a regional forum. On the other hand, anxieties about domination by India have thwarted even the limited potential for regional cooperation.
India, remember, was a reluctant entrant to SAARC when it was set up at Bangladesh’s initiative. A lukewarm approach also marked how India participated in the forum. It suspected the forum was “a ganging up of mostly hostile smaller neighbours as a containment strategy against it”, Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary of India, writes in his 2017 book How India Sees the World. “The motivations of some of the neighbours did justify this suspicion.”
Saran goes on to cite the attempts made by smaller members such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal to use SAARC as a mediating forum for bilateral issues, including Kashmir, and river water disputes between India and Nepal or India and Bangladesh. Interestingly, to a large extent, the latter water dispute was resolved bilaterally in the last decade, and not because of the mediation of any regional forum.
There was also the example of how Nepal tried to obstruct the entry of Afghanistan as the eighth member of SAARC in 2005. The move was seen by Indian diplomats as the erstwhile Nepali monarchy’s way of hitting back at it for opposing the then King Gyanendra’s assumption of absolute powers and the suspension of arms supplies to his army. The Nepal delegation’s demand for the inclusion of China in SAARC couldn’t be met but it was eventually placated by extending “observer status” to China, the US and Japan.
India’s post-economic liberalization momentum made the case for using SAARC for economic integration of the region (on the pattern of ASEAN) or for free trade pacts strong on paper, but its implementation hit roadblocks. The most significant hindrance was Pakistan, which has been strategically averse to any form of regional economic integration with India at the pivot. In the last few years, however, New Delhi has sought some creative ways to circumvent such hindrance by recalling something that is very much a part of the SAARC charter.
A glimpse of how India sought to leverage SAARC for a new kind of economic regionalism was apparent at the Kathmandu summit in 2014. Modi hinted at the need for a two-speed SAARC. This is how foreign policy commentator C Raja described India’s move:
“Rather than let one country take the entire region hostage, Modi suggested, those who are ready for integration should move ahead. As a result, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal got together soon after the Kathmandu summit to implement the motor vehicle agreement.The BBIN framework was seen by many as heralding the era of ‘SAARC Minus One’ and hostile to Pakistan. The BBIN, however, was very much part of the SAARC framework. The SAARC charter allows two or more countries of the forum to embark on what is called ‘sub-regional cooperation’. It was a policy instrument that was long available to policymakers in Delhi but remained unutilised.”
That, however, didn’t mean India was relying on this group for its objectives of economic diplomacy in the region. Far from it. India assigned it a specific role while exploring multilateral alternatives in South Asia for different objectives.
This takes us to the second point that’s often discounted while discussing India’s approach to SAARC. In recent years, India has recalibrated its South Asian regional initiative towards other forums, particularly the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC. India’s renewed focus on BIMSTEC, which it was involved in setting up in 1997, shows how the country sees it as an economic cooperation forum as well as a strategic move.
A grouping of five South Asian countries, excluding Pakistan, and two South East Asian countries has certain strategic advantages for India that the foreign policy establishment in New Delhi can’t afford to ignore.
While the prime minister invited leaders of the SAARC members to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014, he chose to welcome BIMSTEC leaders after his re-election in 2019. On the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Goa in 2016, Modi also hosted BIMSTEC leaders. The next year, while speaking at the grouping’s summit, the prime minister described it as “a natural platform to fulfill our key foreign policy priorities of Neighborhood First and Act East”.
The growing significance of BIMSTEC for India can be seen in the context of how the country is focusing on the Bay of Bengal. This comes in the wake of strategic strides made by China in registering its presence in the Bay of Bengal. While economic logic for it may be traced to how the Bay of Bengal’s geographical location is important for China’s international trade, other advantages cannot be ruled out, including the region being a major repository of natural gas.
Indian diplomacy, however, would still hedge its bets in carrying out a comparative analysis of SAARC and BIMSTEC. In all likelihood, it would look to attain specific objectives from these regional groups, hoping that some of them are complementary goals for both the groups. For a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, India has picked the regional platform that is most relevant to tackling the health emergency. So, far from being a sudden rediscovery of SAARC, India’s latest initiative shows a continuity in its broader approach.