Futility of reviving SAARC

Nepal Prime Minister K.P.Oli’s visit to India not only refreshed bilateral relations but also contributed to the resumption of discussions on South Asian regionalism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response on 19th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Islamabad, an issue raised by his Nepali counterpart, conveys that India is not keen on reviving the now-defunct SAARC. Citing cross-border terrorism perpetrated by Pakistan, Modi is reported to have indicated that it is difficult to proceed with SAARC in these circumstances.
Two questions are pertinent for any discussion on reviving SAARC: Is it realistic? And, is it possible? International organisations achieve cooperative outcomes through transmission of information or socialisation. States use organisations to both reduce transaction costs and create information, ideas, norms, and expectations. States also legitimise or delegitimise particular ideas and practices and enhance their capacities and power through international organisations. These functions constitute “international organizations as agents, which, in turn, influence the interests, inter-subjective understandings, and environment of states.” An organisation can only be useful if member states share the view that it meets, or at least has the potential to meet, their respective interests.
In the case of SAARC, a fragile structure, weak mandate, mistrust and misperceptions, and conflict among member countries have impeded it from performing any of the above mentioned functions smoothly. For instance, SAARC has two sets of goals. First, the immediate and non-political aims such as national development through regional socio-economic and cultural cooperation. Second relates to the long-term, political objective of creating a durable, stable, and peaceful regional order. The organisation was a product of the functionalist optimism that economic cooperation will circumvent political issues. However, it could contribute to solving neither economic problems nor political issues. Further, it has also failed to modify the perceptions and conduct of its members. At this juncture, the idea that economic integration will lead to peace and that the ‘peace dividend’ will bring progress and development to the whole region is far from reality. Therefore, even if reinvigorated through structural reforms, the organisation will not be able to contribute to regional cooperation and development. But can the structural and other issues be fixed? First, the likelihood of amending the SAARC Charter to make the organisation’s structure and mandate effective is limited due to the conflicting views of member countries to structural reforms. For instance, India “remains convinced that more harm than good would come from amending the Charter.” In contrast, Pakistan argues for Charter reform and especially amending the provision pertaining to the discussion of bilateral security issues in the regional platform. While Bangladesh shares India’s position, Sri Lanka supports Pakistan’s viewpoint. Since the unanimity principle of the organisation provides veto power to each member, amending the Charter will be extremely difficult. Second, the chances of resolving India-Pakistan conflict, the prominent factor behind the comatose status of the organisation, are limited. Kashmir is the bone of contention between these two leading South Asian powers. On the one hand, neither the use of force nor diplomacy is expected to bring peace to Kashmir in the near future. On the other, the likelihood of India-Pakistan relationship deteriorating further appears high. The steep increase in ceasefire violations in recent months and the recurrence of Pakistan backed terrorist attacks on Indian soil have intensified tensions. Since India’s decision to boycott the Islamabad meeting of SAARC and its cancellation, more than 350 ceasefire violations have been reported in Jammu and Kashmir. The year 2017 has been the “bloodiest on the LoC, and the international border in the Jammu sector since the ceasefire agreement (CFA) was agreed to in 2003” with more than 160 soldiers losing their lives.
Finally, since India-Pakistan rivalry has been the primary factor hampering the process of regional integration, many analysts have proposed a SAARC minus one. This could be a SAARC without India or without Pakistan. Both prospects, however, have serious drawbacks. First, without involving Pakistan, the possibility of integrating South Asia and resolving the economic and security challenges that the region faces will be almost impossible. The most pressing issue in the region is terrorism and Pakistan stands at its core as both perpetrator and victim. Moreover, the other members of the organisation, who have a good relationship with Pakistan, are not likely to favour the idea of a SAARC minus Pakistan. The consequence of an Indian exit from SAARC is likely to be worse. It would possibly cause the death of the SAARC ‘zombie’. India enjoys substantial regional influence across South Asia due to its size, population, and economic might. Without India, meaningful regional cooperation in South Asia would not be possible.

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