Indian ‘inflexibility’ and row with Pakistan thwarts regional cooperation

Long Xingchun, senior visiting fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, while writing for the Chinese Daily Global Times has argued that the Indian inflexibility on the SAARC issue, boycotting the summit because of Pakistan, is thwarting regional cooperation. Xingchun further argues that although Pakistan was well-prepared for the recent SAARC summits, the event had to be postponed repeatedly because of India’s refusal to attend it. On Kartpur Opening, Xingchuan notes that “(Imran) Khan was present at the opening ceremony (of Kartarpur Corridor), reflecting a positive attitude. However, India declined to attend the SAARC summit even after Nepal’s mediation”.

The opinion piece, in full, can be found below:

India-Pakistan row thwarts regional cooperation

By Long Xingchun

Not long ago, Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairsonce again invited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend the 19th summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj responded that India will not be present unless Pakistan stops its terrorist activities against India.

Originally planned to be held in Pakistan in November 2016, the 19th SAARC summit was postponed due to a terrorist attack on a camp in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir in September. Dozens of Indian soldiers died in the worst terrorist incident in recent years.

New Delhi alleged that Pakistan’s Jaish-e-Mohammad militant group was responsible for the attack, but Islamabad denied the charge. Subsequently, Modi refused to attend the summit, and Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan took a joint stance in boycott. Under the SAARC Charter, the summit is automatically postponed or cancelled as long as one member skips the event.

In the following two years, although Pakistan was prepared for the summit, the event had to be postponed repeatedly because of India’s refusal to attend it.

SAARC was founded by seven countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives in 1985. Afghanistan then joined as the eighth member in 2007. As the most populous regional cooperation organization, SAARC aims to accelerate economic growth and to improve people’s quality of life, bring about social progress and cultural development in the region. 

The organization has made progress in regional natural disaster relief, disease prevention, combating transnational crime and personnel exchange. 

In terms of economic cooperation, the member states reached the Agreement on SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement in 1993 and launched the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) in 2004. Nonetheless, the FTA’s effectiveness was significantly crippled because Pakistan declined to grant India a Most Favored Nation status.

Based on SAFTA, SAARC has long-term plans to set up a customs union, common market and monetary union drawing on the EU’s experience. However, the conflicts between India and Pakistan have thwarted the organization’s development. 

The SAARC Charter mandates that “The Heads of State or Government shall meet once a year.” However, only 18 summits were held during 34 years of its founding with the India-Pakistan rivalry being the main cause. 

Even though several joint declarations and agreements were signed, most of them were not effectively implemented, which led to ineffective regional cooperation. Hence, SAARC is almost invisible among many regional intergovernmental organizations around the world.

Since India-Pakistan conflicts are unlikely to be resolved soon, and the SAARC members are all developing nations with relatively low manufacturing ability and limited trade and investment potential, India has shifted its focus to Southeast Asia while being a member of the South Asian bloc. 

In the 1990s, New Delhi proposed the Look East policy. After Modi took office in 2014, he upgraded it to the Act East policy. In addition to establishing the ASEAN+India (10+1) mechanism and attending the East Asia Summit, India initiated the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) involving Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal as well as Southeast Asia’s Thailand and Myanmar, and founded a sub-regional cooperative organization BBIN consist of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. All of New Delhi’s moves have excluded Islamabad. 

At the BRICS Summit in India in 2016, India invited BIMSTEC members instead of SAARC nations to attend the dialogue.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan sought warming ties with India after taking office in August 2018. On September 20, Khan wrote to Modi, expecting to restart the bilateral peace dialogue and meaningful and constructive engagement. In November, Khan opened a visa-free access to Kartarpur in Pakistan for Indian Sikhs, where the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, lies buried. Khan was present at the opening ceremony, reflecting a positive attitude. However, India declined to attend the SAARC summit even after Nepal’s mediation.

Some believe that Modi’s attitude has a lot to do with the 2019 elections. Due to the historical wounds of partition and a long-standing confrontation, anti-Pakistan sentiment in India is political correctness and can obtain votes. 

In December, Modi’s BJP faced a drubbing in local elections in five states, casting a shadow over the ruling party’s general election prospects. Even though Islamabad has tried to be friendly, Modi may not want to reciprocate to avoid complications.

The 19th SAARC summit may be delayed yet again until the Indian general elections. If India still sticks to the stance on not going for the summit, it will never be convened unless Pakistan renounces its right to host.

The author is a senior visiting fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Originally Posted on Global Times China

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