It’s not about expansion. It’s about SAARC’s very existence.

Keeping in mind this reality, (India’s) approach to SAARC was the only one logically sustainable – we set aside our differing political and security perceptions for the time being, and focus attention on economic cooperation. Our expectation was that the very dynamic of establishing cross-border economic linkages, drawing upon the complementaries that existed among different parts of our region would eventually help us overcome the mutual distrust and suspicion which prevents us from evolving a shared security perception. This remains our hope today, even though the record of SAARC in this respect, has been hardly inspiring. The fact is that SAARC is still largely a consultative body, which has shied away from undertaking even a single collaborative project in its 20 years of existence. In fact, there is deep resistance to doing anything that could be collaborative. On the other hand, some members of SAARC actively seek association with countries outside the region or with regional or international organizations, in a barely disguised effort to “counterbalance” India within the Association or to project SAARC as some kind of a regional dispute settlement mechanism. [Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, Feb 2005/MEA]

It is abundantly clear that many of India’s neighbours do not see SAARC this way. At the Dhaka summit, Pakistan’s prime minister has again declared that it remains his country’s policy to link “free trade with Kashmir”, even if means it gets neither. And yet another chapter in the use of SAARC to ‘balance’ India was written this week when Nepal, supported by Pakistan and Bangladesh decided to demand China’s inclusion as a dialogue partner, as the price of India’s own attempts to bring Afghanistan into the South Asia’s premier squabbling society. ‘Differing political and security perceptions’ again got the better of the ‘economic cooperation’ that India desires. The Indian prime minister’s offer to kickstart an open skies policy ended up as a sideshow. The much talked about free-trade agreement is expected to be launched in 2006. But free trade itself will have to wait until 2016.

Let’s play squabble
Despite being in force for over two decades, the agenda for SAARC summits has remained the same — how to breathe new life into a pathetically dysfunctional and ineffective multilateral organisation. The Dhaka summit itself, and the events leading up to it, indicate that the time has come for India to pause and reconsider its involvement in the grouping. The fundamental question the Indian foreign policy establishment must ask is whether or not SAARC adds any value to India’s policy towards its neighbours. The answer, which even the Indian foreign secretary conceded, is quite obviously a ‘No’.

India’s stated policy in South Asia involves making neighbours partners in its growth. It has been able to achieve this to some extent with Sri Lanka. But Pakistan, Bangladesh and now Nepal have political priorities that come in the way of trade and economics. Not only is SAARC ineffective in overcoming political hurdles, it has become a vehicle for these countries to promote their political interests vis-a-vis India. There is little that India has gained from its membership of SAARC. In comparison, India has seen tangible benefits by merely being a dialogue partner of ASEAN.

A game for two and no more players
It has never been clearer that India can achieve whatever it seeks to achieve through SAARC — open skies, free-trade or security — through separate bilateral processes. Instead of an ‘one size fits all’ approach, India can calibrate its engagement with its neighbours depending on the extent of convergence of mutual priorities. So free trade and open skies with Sri Lanka need not be held hostage to Pakistan and Bangladesh resolving their political disputes with India. That this is already the situation on the ground further weakens the case for SAARC.

Apart from deriving a linkage with (India’s) own internal challenges, regional disturbances in neighbouring countries affect us in many other ways. The danger of a number of failed States emerging in our neighbourhood has far reaching consequences for our security and for the well being of our people. [Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Nov 2005/PIB]

The field of international relations is littered with multilateral organisations that are little more than talk-shops. Mere ineffectivenes is not reason enough to pull out of one. But while India could previously bear with SAARC and indulge governments in the neighbourhood, it now risks allowing those very failed states to undermine its interests. On the other hand, there is a strong case for India to adopt a proactive strategy to bring about peace and stability in the region. SAARC, though, either stands in or gets in the way.

Need an “A”. But how to fit this extra “C”?
Instead of engaging Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh in negotiations over the expansion of SAARC and getting into the merits of the “China for Afghanistan” bargain, India should use the Dhaka summit to sound a clear warning that it is time, in India at least, for a critical re-evaluation of SAARC’s existence. As usual, India’s response is all reason and rationality. Instead of reaffirming its commitment to SAARC, it should point out that while its commitment to enhancing relations with its neighbours remains unaltered, its patience with SAARC is not infinite. A threat is only as credible as the capability to make good on it, and India would lose nothing by beginning to pack its bags in public.

It starts with “L”
Any change in course will have to contend with the bureaucracy that SAARC has created within India’s own foreign policy establishment — one that is likely to have a vested interest in its own perpetuation. Change will require imagination and leadership, as much at home as abroad. Lack thereof has created those failed states the prime minister spoke of, but the change of guard at India’s foreign ministry has created an opportunity. It is up to Dr Manmohan Singh to take up the challenge. But he can rest assured that outside the circle of politicians and diplomats whose business it is to be bothered about it, there will be few tears shed if India were to walk out SAARC.

19 thoughts on “Noah SAARC”

  1. If Pakistan insists on linking trade with Kashmir then India should let Pakistan be. Given its geographic proxmimity to India, Pakistan would have one of the biggest markets at its disposal, but it’s willing to fritter it all away for Kashmir.

    Nevertheless, India should establish free trade with other SAARC, via SAFTA or bilaterally.

  2. [Acorn], you are right, it is time to completely evaulate our stand within SAARC. It denegrated into a joke some time ago and now it is just an annual exercise in the “Who barks louder?” game.

  3. … there will be few tears shed if India were to walk out SAARC.

    India should not walk out of SAARC. Walking out will disband SAARC. It might even drive Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh to build an alternate bloc with China–not to fight terrorism but to increase mutually-beneficial trade under a Chinese-sponsored Free Trade Agreement (FTA), isolating India in its own neighborhood.

    As for the question of linking the inclusion of Afghanistan to China’s admission to the body as an observer, first brought up by Nepal at the Dhaka summit, India might well make its own connection. Manmohan Singh can evoke former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ advice to the Vajpayee administration on his visit to India in 2002.

    On that occasion Peres advised India to apply for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership. The only enemy NATO is fighting these days is terrorism, Peres said. “The world is no longer divided between the East and the West, the North and the South. The new division is between countries that harbor terrorists and countries that fight them.”

    NATO has a sizeable presence in Afghanistan today, with 12,000 troops stationed in the north and west. An additional 1000 troops are in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, helping with earthquake relief. Pakistan has already been declared a non-NATO ally by the Bush administration (in March 2004), giving its army access to the best available European and US defense materiel and training. Given its status as a frontline state in the global war against terror, Pakistan should have no objections if NATO was invited to sit as an observer at SAARC.

    “Some modalities need to be worked out to include the country,” said Shyam Saran, India’s foreign secretary, at the summit, in referring to Afghanistan. These modalities should also include working out a new balance at SAARC. Afghanistan must and has been welcomed to join. But China should be admitted as an observer only if NATO is granted the same status.

  4. Like the UN has been made totally useless by the US, SAARC has been made totally useless by bickerings of Pakistan and India. It is issues between these countries more than any country that has held SAARC and SAFTA hostage.

    “India’s stated policy in South Asia involves making neighbours partners in its growth”. Yesh, right??? Give me another line here.You clearly haven’t seen nor have a clear idea how Indian foreign policy works with its immediate neighbours.

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  6. m_vijaya,

    Yes, it is unlikely that SAARC can exist if India were to exit. But that’s the point, why should India keep SAARC alive, when all it does is allow the neighbourhood autocrats a forum to thumb their noses at India?

    As for them engaging in free trade with China, excluding India; that is no different from the progression of status quo. Pakistan surely is not about to open up its economy to India. Bangladesh may do so, but will do so regardless of SAARC. For all Gyanendra’s grandstanding, he cannot change Nepal’s geography.

    India did insist on bringing in Japan and the United States in response to the calls for China’s inclusion. But as I mentioned in the subtitle, the question is not whether and how to expand SAARC. The question is how important SAARC is to India’s foreign policy interests. In my opinion, SAARC is inconsequential.


    What do you suppose India should do if Pakistan raises bilateral disputes at the forum? It is fallacious equate Pakistan’s attempts to use SAARC to promote its Kashmir agenda with India’s attempts to keep it out. And rest assured, Pakistan is not the only one who’s bickering there.

    You are entitled to your view on whether Indian foreign policy has affected its neighbours. And even if you missed the word “stated” in the sentence you cite, I would think it rather presumptuous to suggest that I have not seen or have a clear idea of how Indian foreign policy works in the region.

  7. India might have to keep SAARC alive to create a buffer zone around itself, apart from economic reasons. Although, the danger is that India can end up becoming dependent on hostile countries. India will really have to keep hoping that the neighbours end up becoming democratic regimes, and that is just wishful thinking. Its doing the right thing by trying to involve friendly countries and allies like US and Europe, but letting China in will basically make it a India Vs China-Pakistan show with other countries having to pick sides. {May not be a bad idea, if we want to keep strong relations intact with the US and the west(US understands better when it sees things as freedon Vs communism rather than just friend sermon). But you can’t always rely on this reasoning.}

    How many SAARC countries are really ready to have FTAs in its true spirit? To really start having the benefits of such agreements they would have to be really good democratic nations. Having such culture imbibed will take decades.

    My bird brain says, India is better off without SAARC (at this point of time) rather than be an idealistic poet.

  8. I think India should invite China to the SAARC – turning the tables on Pak, Nepal, and Bangladesh. So what’s the worst that could happen? India has make deals with China to move things forward. Nothing happens in SAARC now anyway – how is making a deal with China any worst? Would China be interested in large India market rather than a tiny Pakistan or Bangladesh market? As far as security is concerned – China already gave Pakistan nuclear weapons and is building naval bases in Pakistan’s Gwadar and Bangla’s Chittagong while agreeing to supply arms to Nepal (to fight commies!). Can holding China out of SAARC stop these activities?

    India has nothing more to lose with respect trade or security by including China. In some way, being big and wanting to look responsible both India and China can move things forward without slogans and stupid bickering like children. I’d say India should propose and grant a full membership status to China by next SAARC. In the process, may be, we, Indians, can learn a little bit from China (which apparently, contrary to India, never does anything wrong). And in the process change the name from SAARC to SNEARf!

  9. Subject: A proposal to build a South Asian union (SAU) like European Union by expanding SAARC states.

    His Excellencies,
    Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, Head of Governments & States, Political & Religious Leaders, Intellectuals, Educationists, Economists, Welfare Organizations, Mass People of South Asian region.

    Peace be upon all of you, history is repeating from the creation of human life till now and will be repeated till the last final judgment of Creator. Actually, Creator created us as his best creation of life but we divided it into different nations, religions, cultures, languages, ideologies, etc in several thousands of years since the appearance of 1st human Adam (PBUH). We don’t know when the human life on earth will be finished for ever on dooms day, but some think that human life never stop repeating it’s wrongs. Now we have seen that the days of the human being are becoming more critical, insecure, divided among our selves in different ideas, increasing of poverty, destruction of economy of some nations in comparison with the economy of some rich counties of the west. So the time for South Asian nations to unite as a strong body which is most caring for the inhabitants of this region has come, and in this way, we can develop ourselves. I have no right to waste your valuable time, but my heart is pressing me to place this proposal or advice to the holy hearts of our great rulers of the people of SAARC counties.
    Proposal for future South Asian Union (SAU)
    1. The mass people of this region want to abolish visa system for themselves in order to enjoy traveling facility freely and free trade among the regional counties like EU states. We can include Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, China & Philippine. The Afghan president his Excellency Mr. Hamid Karzai and his Government also shows interest for entering into SAARC.

    2. If we can include thirteen more countries (Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, China & Philippine) with the seven counties of SAARC (Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives), then this organization or union will be one of the strongest unions. And then we can establish a powerful single currency like EURO as, for example SACU (South Asian Currency) or dollar or any other selected by the forum. And currency value can be fixed by averaging the currency values of the nations concerned.
    3. All states will keep there own national flags as state flag and one common union flag, like that of EU.

    4. We can establish joint military command council for the defense of the whole region like EU. That means we can unite in a union to ensure human life security along with a strong economy like European Union.

    I don’t know when the people of this region of South Asia will start to feel love and affection for each other, and will be united. But we should try to establish a golden future for ourselves. If successful, then generation after generation of this region will remember you for your kindness. God bless us with eternal & external peace.


    Saulat Kamran
    E-Mail Address:
    Dhaka, Bangladesh.

  10. We should start inter religion dialogue and try to find out similarities among our self. We must get similarities in our all religions, in all over the world, if we can scarify for each other to establish peace forever. No religion teaches to harm others.

  11. We should start inter religion dialogue and try to find out similarities among our self. We must get similarities in our all religions, in all over the world, if we can sacrify for each other to establish peace forever. No religion teaches to harm others. God has given us guidance to peace & prosperity by His instructions to humankind in His first human creation by Prophet Adam to this universe for a single human family , universal human family started to harm each other , creating various type of hostility, hatred, dividing, killing, violence, in the name of religion, ideology, personal ambition, state power, politics etc. in sense of God’s human creation.
    Saulat Kamran

  12. We should start inter religion dialogue and try to find out similarities among our self. We must get similarities in our all religions, in all over the world, if we can scarify for each other to establish peace forever. No religion teaches to harm others. God given us guide of peace prosperity by his instruction to humankind in his first human creation by Prophet Adam to this universe for a single human family , universal human family are started to harm to each other , created various type hostility, hating, dividing, killing, violence, in the name of religion, ideology, personal ambition, state power, politics etc. in sense of God’s human creation. Universal human family should stop all inhuman activities immediately.
    Saulat Kamran

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