The 18th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation concluded in Nepalese capital Kathmandu with an outcome far below expectations. Out of the three key agreements on road, rail, and energy to be signed by the eight SAARC members, only one on energy was finally inked.
The other two were stalled by Pakistan on the ground that its “internal processes“ were not complete. The regional grouping will now discuss these two in three months but now even a framework pact is unlikely before six months when the SAARC foreign ministerial meeting will take place.
In a nutshell, the Kathmandu Summit did not achieve any major breakthrough. The summit’s theme was “deeper regional integration“with no decisions on flow of investments and financial arrangements. Likewise, a major concern of terrorism raised by India, Afghanistan and Nepal was left ignored.
Like previous SAARC Summit, the Kathmandu Summit too was high on rhetoric without any concrete roadmap for the implementation of its mega-plans. For instance, it did set the target of forming a regional economic community in the coming 15 years like it has talked about removing poverty, fighting terrorism, and enhanced connectivity.
The Kathmandu Declaration listed other highly ambitious goals like developing a blue ocean-based economy for the region, improving governance, extending universal health coverage, food security, tackling cybercrimes et al. But, it remains to be seen how many actually will be implemented on the ground.
The moot question is why the regional grouping has failed to takeoff despite three decades of existence. SAARC’s progress has been hobbled due to India-Pakistan dissonance and the fear of India among its neighbors and vice versa. Barring India-Bhutan and India-Afghanistan ties to a large extent, there is trouble and perennial suspicion in all bilateral ties.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have issues; India has issues with almost all neighbors and the animosity or the spirit of cooperation varies only in degrees. On top of it, there are contested borders or lack of defined borders, especially between three of the biggest SAARC members – India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
That is why it would be wrong to put SAARC in the same bracket as the European Union or the Asean or even the African Union. There exists a high level of bonhomie as in the case of the EU or a significant unity of purpose like in the Asean and the AU. SAARC in that sense may always remain an underperformer.
The Kathmandu Summit this year was remarkably tensed as the leaders from India and Pakistan cold-shouldered each other on the opening day. The clash of interest was even more visible with India pushing for greater emphasis on regional cooperation while Pakistan along with Nepal advocating an increased role for two of the nine observers – China and South Korea.
The continued standoff between the region’s two biggest members does not augur well for its future. Further, Pakistan and now Nepal pushing for greater Chinese say in the region will enhance New Delhi’s suspicion. More importantly, it could push India to isolate Pakistan by virtually signing bilateral deals and trade facilitation agreements with other members.
For instance, India and Nepal signed as many as 10 bilateral deals. With growing Chinese influence in the region in the form of investments and trade deals, India will be pushed to pursue that approach. New Delhi cannot be expected to wait for the ever-elusive SAARC consensus approach just because Islamabad views things differently.
The next 19th SAARC Summit will be held in 2016 in Islamabad. Between now and then, the regional group has plenty of time to push the two deals on rail and road connectivity. SAARC heads of governments have given their transport ministers a three-month timeline to finalise framework agreements on – Saarc Motor Vehicles Agreement for the Regulation of Passenger and Cargo Vehicular Traffic and Saarc Regional Agreement on Railways — for approval during the Islamabad Summit. Even if these two agreements are signed then and boost regional connectivity in one of the poorest connected region in the world, the whole process has been delayed for two years.
Unless the member nations, Pakistan in particular, resolve to not keep the SAARC a hostage to their bilateral discords, it is unlikely the group will realize its true potential. The danger lurking, in fact, is that it may fade away in the history as a failed experiment despite immense scope.