SAARC – A Bilateral Blunder

By Tarushi Aswani

With Coronavirus engulfing the entire world in its burning flames, it is yet another moment to understand the importance of cooperation between nations. After India’s resolve to pitch in funds for an emergency fund within SAARC, Afghanistan, Maldives and Nepal have also stepped up their game, each contributing substantial amounts to the fund. On March 15 as well, a glimpse of regional cooperation could be seen when leaders the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) teamed up for a virtual meeting to deliberate upon and coordinate joint efforts toward a regional response to the deadly outbreak.

Formed as an institution for regional cooperation SAARC comprises of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka a majority of which have reported sizeable numbers of active corona cases, SAARC has often found itself in high waters owing to the legendary animosity that India and Pakistan whole heartedly share.

The nature of disagreement, discord and difference that even verbal altercations create is such that SAARC events stand postponed with one country bad mouthing the other. Their disagreement over Kashmir is an irritant that has more than once affected the smooth functioning and operation of the organization that was founded on the grounds of promoting the welfare of the peoples, improving their quality of life; to social progress and cultural development in the region; to the promotion and strengthening of collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia.

It is in fact a matter of harsh reality that acrimony exists between some SAARC members. Be it India- Pakistan’s, Pakistan-Afghan relations, dispute over territories between Nepal and India, not to forget water disputes between India and Bangladesh. However other countries all around the world also seem to have disputes, but that does not affect their functioning and cooperation when they are faced with issues that involve other regional actors as well. For instance, ASEAN countries also face intra-regional conflicts over ownership of disputed islands in South China Sea, territorial disputes, unresolved borders and the like. But for them bilateral issues between two countries are not tantamount to a whole regional institution standing still. They work in collaboration to jointly arrive at a mechanism which promotes trade and cooperation. Likewise, a serious split between Taiwan and China is not a clandestine affair yet the former is the largest trading partner of Beijing.

Circling back to SAARC, the last SAARC Summit was held on 26-27 November in 2014 in Kathmandu. The next summit, which was scheduled to take place in November 2016 in Islamabad, was called off due to India’s constant discontent alleging that Pakistan was sponsoring terrorism in Kashmir. Since then, SAARC stands frozen when India made it clear that it would not attend the 19th SAARC summit, to be hosted by Pakistan in 2017, in the wake of the cross-border terrorist incidents at Pathankot and Uri. The next SAARC Summit never happened and with the Narendra Modi government zooming in more on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) as a part of its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and ‘Act East’ policy, which seemed more like an attempt to call quits on SAARC.

As PM Modi rekindles the longing for SAARC countries to team up in this time of world health epidemic, Pakistan has also hinted that it will not shy away from cooperating with neighboring countries in addressing the challenges posed by the deadly COVID-19. Pakistani PM Imran Khan had also addressed President Trump in a tweet requesting lifting of sanctions from Iran in this time of severe need. This is essentially a time when SAARC can act as a consultative body facilitating regional integration as a necessary precondition to stop the flow of virus from one developing country to another.

So far, it was India which was seen as undermining SAARC in which other South Asian countries have a keen interest. But now, that India seems to be re-ushering SAARC as a potential solution to combat COVID 19, it signifies how India is willing to initiate cooperation under the aegis of an institution that has not been able to stand on its feet despite members being committed and enthusiastic. SAARC has not even been able to establish itself at the level of an international non-governmental organization, let alone as an institution for regional cooperation. SAARC, in its charter pledges for the welfare of South Asian people, accelerating economic growth, social progress and culture development; and strengthening collective self-reliance; however it is these very objectives that the organization has failed at achieving.

For all the years that it has existed, SAARC by the virtue of its existence stands on grounds of severe conflicts, be it Pakistan-India mired in the Kashmir Issue, Afghanistan’s tug of war with Taliban, terrorism truces between Pakistan and Afghanistan, SAARC has majorly fallen out in ensuring regional cooperation among its members to the extent that members have boycotted its conferences and let the institution hang loose of its original purpose. This major inability of carving out mechanisms relating to dispute resolution and conflict mediation has stunted its growth as an institution.

On its face, SAARC as a platform as also been unable to establish relations of trust among members and shape their confidence on each other under its umbrella, such factors have been detrimental to its growth and made it dysfunctional. While the coronavirus continues to claim lives all around the world, our South Asian region still has a long way to tread in terms of joint regional rescue operations that combat the epidemic, as we still face trust issues within our conflicted neighbourhood.

The author is a freelance journalist. The opinions expressed belong to the author and not the institution.