Re-imagining South Asian cooperationIndia and Nepal will play the role of a catalyst in shaping the narrative of a new regional and sub-regional alignment.
The world is re-set now; Covid-19 and a long lockdown have changed the course of history. Western Europe, the United States and the rest of the advanced economies are no longer in a position to continue with their long-surviving trade and investment policies. Geography will be considered differently by these economies now. In transition, the big shift in international business will be disruptive in an unprecedented manner.
In such changing times, South Asian countries have a chance to attend to the urgency of having a constrictive framework for regionalism and sub-regionalism. To mitigate the risks imposed by the unimaginable disruption, there is a need to re-visit the opportunities missed and make a new forward-looking action plan for South Asia. In order to rejuvenate the economy and sustain the desired level of growth for a fairly long time, there will be a need to revive the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) Initiative.
As globalised trade is badly disrupted and it is unlikely that it will see the same kind of buoyancy in the near future, India and Nepal have to come forward and lead the revival plan of these two regional associations in letter and spirit. These two friendly countries with strong trust in each other have been pursuing the mission of a united and strong region; however, Pakistan’s odd strategic consideration resulted in the efforts going to waste.
The crisis offers ample opportunities to boost the South Asian spirit and correct the mistakes of bygone times. Particularly for Pakistan, it should be a moment of reckoning to understand the significance of a functionally active SAARC. As the region is facing a sort of humanitarian crisis with total systemic disruption, it has to look within and gain traction for economic and strategic considerations. Any idea of SAARC minus Pakistan can be counter-productive. This should be the realisation of all member countries. A constructive reciprocation is something that can help Pakistan in its image makeover and let SAARC function to achieve re-imagined goals.
The strengthening of regional and sub-regional economic cooperation in South Asia will be of immediate help in dealing with the pandemic and the broken supply chains and mobility caused by it. SAARC and BBIN members should explore opportunities among themselves. Pursuing meaningful regionalism and sub-regionalism will be the best strategy for the member countries willing to strengthen their capacity and sail through the difficult times ahead. In a badly troubled world, thinking of having a firmed ‘home-bound’ approach for economic cooperation can be a game-changer.
China, where Covid-19 originated, has played a very limited role in extending support to the SAARC countries. With numerous complaints of defective Chinese personal protective equipment and testing kits and medical equipment, SAARC member countries are also very cautious of using faulty Chinese products. Therefore, India has a much greater responsibility to take a humane approach and extend all necessary support to its neighbours.
Braving the new world
With a resumption of flight operations, the world will see the biggest ever displacement of skilled and semi-skilled workforces. A recent finding of the International Labour Organisation estimates that nearly half of the global workforce is at risk of losing livelihoods to a pandemic-caused recession. With the alarm bells getting louder, the world should wake up to save lives and livelihoods. South Asian countries should be particularly wary of this big, adverse shift.
The World Bank recently estimated that remittance to South Asia will drop by 22 percent this year, owing to the global turmoil created by the pandemic and the lockdown meant to curb the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus. Country-wise details are not available in the World Bank study, though cumulatively the loss to South Asia is pegged at $109 billion. The crash of crude oil prices has challenged material stability in the Middle East; a substantial number of expats from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh working there are in dire straits. Globally, the finding is not encouraging either. In the same release, the World Bank projects remittances to decline by a record 20 percent from $714.2 billion in 2019.
Albeit on the sad side, a new history is being made. An outbreak of unfortunate happenings the world over has resulted in the loss of employment and a sharp decline in wages. The trend of migration is suddenly threatened, and migrants are vulnerable like never before. The downward momentum is symptomatic of a deep economic mess that will be difficult to cure in the next few quarters.
At this critical juncture, when the terms of late-stage capitalism are undergoing change, the time has come when politics must make an interface with economics in policy and action. For survival and a rebound, South Asian economies have no better option than reviewing their domestic and regional markets. In this emerging scenario, economic integration has to be shaped by considering scale, dependency and sustainability.
The role of India and Nepal will be that of a catalyst in shaping the narrative of a new regional and sub-regional alignment. The region’s self-reliance in economic terms will depend a lot on how these two friendly countries come together—setting aside a few bilateral concerns—and get along with other South Asian countries in putting up a common front to brave the new world emerging with Covid-19. This time in history will be known for a re-shaping of the world, which will stay on the course of modernism, but one that will be drastically different from the post-colonial one. The shifted fundamentals will have an impact on the multilateral institutions and advanced economies that enormously dominated the post-World War period.
A deeper realisation for South Asian countries would be to look within and strengthen their capacities through a greater degree of regional and sub-regional economic cooperation. The growth story of Asia must get one more chapter, mainly shaped by the South Asian block. Accordingly, plans and policies should be made, and the myth that SAARC can’t see a new life in the 21st century should be broken.
In re-imagining South Asian cooperation, the possibilities are promising enough to give it a chance. In the new world order, South Asian countries have to seek a balance between the world and home.
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