By Iftikhar Gilani
ANKARA (AA) - India’s decision not to invite Pakistan to attend the oath-taking ceremony of Narendra Modi for his second term as prime minister on Thursday has sent a clear message that it was no more interested in promoting the eight-member South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) grouping.
Instead, India will focus more on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) -- the sub-regional South and South-East Asian group that includes Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand and Sri Lanka.
In a carefully calibrated diplomatic move, India has attempted to highlight its "neighborhood first" policy and outreach towards Central Asian nations, but kept western neighbor Pakistan in a separate silo. Two other countries invited to attend the oath taking ceremony are Kyrgyzstan as chairman of economic and security alliance Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Mauritius for its large ethnic Indian population.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan did congratulate Modi in a telephonic conversation, but this does not seem to have thawed ties. Both leaders will be attending the SCO summit in Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on June 13-14.
Conceived in 1985, SAARC comprises of eight member states: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Its headquarters are located in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu.
To further demonstrate the irrelevance of SAARC, India is also promoting another sub-regional grouping involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN). In the last few years, it has hosted several BBIN meetings to discuss issues related to water resources management, power, and generation of hydropower, and to ensure connectivity and transit facilities within the region.
There are now moves to set up a similar group with Sri Lanka and Maldives in the South.
However, New Delhi’s endeavor to set up a similar grouping with Iran, Afghanistan and other Central Asian nations by promoting Iran’s Chabahar Port as the main regional trade hub has not yet taken a concrete shape. This grouping was aimed to isolate Pakistan on its western borders.
In 2014 while taking over as the prime minister first time, Modi had invited all eight leaders of SAARC countries. Then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was among foreign dignitaries who witnessed the swearing-in ceremony in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan (presidential estate).
Outgoing junior foreign minister Gen. V K Singh blames ineffectiveness of SAARC to one nation -- implying that Pakistan was repeatedly refusing India a transit corridor to send its goods to Afghanistan. He said BIMSTEC was better evolving within the region.
“Progress evaded growth of SAARC despite its secretariat in place purely on account of one-nation,” he said.
Former Foreign Secretary Subramanyam Jaishankar also says that the grouping has not been able to fulfil expectations.
The 19th SAARC Summit, which was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in 2016, was indefinitely postponed after India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh pulled out of the event. India cited cross-border terrorism as the reason for pulling out of the summit after four militants attacked an army base in border town of Uri (Kashmir), killing 18 soldiers.
- China factor and asymmetry of SAARC
In a nerve wrecking diplomatic war, India was also peeved at Pakistan’s attempts to bring China and Central Asian states into the SAARC fold. India believed that by this move Pakistan was attempting to counter its influence in the region.
Debunking Pakistan’s plans for a greater SAARC, an Indian official described these attempts nothing but Islamabad’s “survival tactic” to divert attention from its isolation. “Pakistan’s credibility has taken a huge beating because of using terror. Afghanistan and Iran, have their own issues with Islamabad and same is with the Central Asian nations too,” he said, asking not to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
China is one of the observer-countries in SAARC along with the U.S., the EU, Japan, Australia, Iran and South Korea. At the 18th summit in Kathmandu in 2014, the host Nepal had also tried to convince countries behind the scene to allow Beijing to become a full-fledged member of the grouping. At this Summit, India was all but isolated in its opposition to China, with the declaration explicitly committing “to engage SAARC observers into productive, demand-driven and objective project-based cooperation in priority areas identified by member-states”.
Journalist turned Pakistani politician Mushahid Hussain Syed says that China was already a player in South Asia. He described the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which runs through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, as the key economic route linking South Asia with Central Asia.
Syed, who played a key role in convincing then-President Gen. Zia ul Haq to participate in the first SAARC summit in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1983, said the Gwadar port was the nearest warm water port not only for China but also for the land-locked Central Asian states.
A major reason for SAARC turning a non-starter has been the asymmetry between India and other member countries in terms of geography, economy, military strength and influence in the global arena make the smaller countries apprehensive. “They perceive India as Big Brother and fear that it might use the SAARC to pursue hegemony in the region. The smaller neighboring countries, therefore, have been reluctant to implement various agreements under SAARC,” says Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, a senior fellow at New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
In the current dynamics, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan have emerged as strong allies of India in the region. While new Maldivian government has also joined the group, Nepal and Sri Lanka, though having good ties with Pakistan also do not want to annoy India at the moment.
These countries were part of the launch of the India-owned GSAT-9 South Asian Satellite in 2017. Data from this satellite is being shared with Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Indian officials said it was also offered to Pakistan, but turned down.
Last year, India excluded Pakistan from the list of SAARC member countries which became part of its state-of-the art National Knowledge Network (NKN) for sharing scientific databases and remote access to advanced research facilities.
Experts say SAARC had never evolved into a vibrant regional forum to deliver results, because of hostile relations between India and Pakistan. The intra-nation trade between SAARC nations, accounts a little over just 1% of their GDP. In contrast, in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- a grouping of 10 countries in Southeast Asia, smaller than SAARC, the intra-bloc trade stands at 10% of their GDP.