A job half finishedSouth Asian countries need to use the recent Covid-19 video conference as impetus to revive SAARC.
On March 15, leaders of the eight South Asian countries got together via video conferencing to begin a dialogue on how to put up a joint effort against the Covid-19 pandemic. The conference, initiated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was historic in nature. Not for the use of video communications, which by 2020 has become old technology. Not even for the setting up of an anti-coronavirus regional fund that will surely help the countries facing a major downturn and foreign currency depletion, although that was indeed a major development. But this conference was particularly historic in nature because it might be the spark that breathes back life into the moribund South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
The regional grouping recently celebrated its 35th anniversary on December 8, 2019. Yet, in truth, it has been allowed, until Modi’s recent initiative, to become comatose starting 2016, when India alleged Pakistan’s involvement in supporting terrorism as grounds for pulling out of the planned Islamabad Summit. This act by India emboldened countries like Bangladesh and Afghanistan to plan to send lower-ranked officials, or to skip the conference altogether, due to their own differences with the host. The ‘postponement’ (members have refused to call it a cancellation) of the 19th summit in 2016 put the final nail in the coffin of SAARC, which was dying a slow death due to its lacking teeth to reduce the trust deficit between members.
Although SAARC countries share commonalities in food, culture and history, it has always been the differences that have stood out. During the grouping’s formation, India’s worries about its smaller neighbours regionalising bilateral issues and Pakistan fearing an association dominated by India made sure that the SAARC charter itself does not give it authority to resolve ‘bilateral and contentious issues’. It has also been the same mistrust, and the highlight of differences, that has also crippled the grouping’s most ambitious project to date—the South Asian Free Trade Agreement. The agreement’s allowance for each country to have an extensive protected goods list means that intra-regional trade—a barometer to gauge economic integration—never crossed 7 percent of the total trade of the region.
No one has missed the irony that it is the Indian prime minister who has now kickstarted the SAARC dialogue, allowing for future discussions on the grouping's moving forward. With India’s obvious animosity towards Pakistan and penchant for control, perhaps no one had suspected this impetus to come from Nepal’s southern neighbour. Therefore, the Indian government should be lauded for its role in reviving the regional grouping in any way, even if the discussions have focused on ways to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.
While no amount of isolation will completely stop the spread of diseases, such moves will always impede economic growth and development. One need only look at the growth of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members to see how beneficial such a grouping is, even given the diversity in culture, religion, food habits and political systems among them. SAARC countries need to use the momentum of the coordination borne out of the current pandemic to move regional integration forward in a meaningful way.
While scrapping Article X of the association’s charter, which bars the discussion of contentious bilateral issues, may be ambitious, times of crises open up previously unthought-of possibilities. In the end, all South Asian countries, home to 21 percent of the world’s population and accounting for 4 percent of the global GDP, must put their mistrust and suspicion behind, only then will the region be able to grow prosperous and secure.
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