India, Pakistan confirm participation in SAARC foreign ministers’ virtual meet, Minister Gyawali saysThe event on September 24 will focus on building an understanding among member states to convene a summit meeting, stalled since 2016.
Amid ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan over territorial and security issues, the two neighbours have confirmed their participation in the meeting of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation’s Council of Ministers, to be held virtually on September 24.
The meeting usually takes place annually on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. But due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the meeting is being organised virtually this year.
As chair of the regional bloc, Nepal will host the meeting which is to focus on seeking a common understanding among member states to convene the stalled 19th SAARC summit, according to Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradeep Gyawali.
“The meeting will reaffirm, reiterate and commit towards the SAARC process. The meeting shows our efforts are ongoing and moving forward,” Minister Gyawali told the Post. “There is a growing realisation that SAARC is still relevant,” said Gyawali.
After Nepal hosted the 18th summit in 2014, the next edition of the event was supposed to be held in Pakistan in 2016. But with border tensions between India and Pakistan and New Delhi accusing Islamabad of hosting anti-India terrorists, it has not been held.
The 19th SAARC Summit was put off after India decided to pull out following a terrorist attack in Uri, Kashmir in 2016.
As a result, Nepal, as the host of the recent-most summit meeting, has been chairing the group since 2014, the longest any country has held the position.
None of the political leaders from India and Pakistan have met recently due to the protracted tensions between the two nuclear powers. But a platform is now being provided by the foreign minister-level meeting of the eight-member group.
But experts from both Nepal and India are still sceptical about the future of the 35-year-old group amid long standing rivalry between India and Pakistan, their territorial disputes, ongoing disputes between India and China, India’s preference towards another regional block, (The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, BIMSTEC), and Nepal’s failure to lead the body’s reinvigoration.
“It is true that until recently, India was not interested in reactivating the stalled SAARC process. But as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on SAARC member states to fight the corona crisis together, it signal’s towards some underlying motivation for India to take the SAARC process forward,”said Shambhu Ram Simkhada, Nepal’s former permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva.
Relations between Pakistan and China and China and India are important and crucial for taking SAARC forward, but it’s not as decisive as some regional experts believe, added Simkhada.
In a move to alienate Pakistan, India has been seen as wanting to give impetus to BIMSTEC which has besides India, Bangladesh, Bhutan Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand as members.
“But since China’s Belt and Road Initiative has a strong presence in the Bay of Bengal area, including in Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh, India might not gain as much as it expects from BIMSTEC,” Simkhada told the Post. “Therefore, among some sections of the Indian establishment, strategic thinkers and academicians voices are being heard on the need to accommodate Pakistan to expand India’s regional clout and ambition so that China can’t increase its influence in the region.”
While on the one hand, bilateral ties between India and Pakistan have not returned to normal, on the other, the ongoing territorial dispute and recent skirmishes between India and China in the Ladakh for four months have further complicated matters.
Since its inception, the regional grouping, originally comprising seven countries before the addition of Afghanistan in 2005, has failed to make expected progress, largely due to the rivalry between Indian and Pakistan.
“Taking SAARC member states into its confidence is India’s prime task at this moment,” said Simkhada.
Modi, who had invited leaders of all SAARC member states to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014, invited leaders from BIMSTEC countries for the same after his re-election in May last year, in what seemed like a clear snub to Pakistan.
In 2018 and 2019, during the SAARC Council of Ministers gathering on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, foreign ministers of both India and Pakistan walked out of the meeting when the other side was delivering its statement.
Ahead of the Council of Ministers meeting, finance ministers from all member states are holding a virtual meeting on the sidelines of the Asian Development Bank’s governing body’s meeting in mid-September, two officials privy to the regional process said.
There was a strong push from the SAARC Secretariat in Nepal not to discontinue regional consultations. Since Nepal was also interested in taking the process further, the regional foreign ministerial meeting is being held, a foreign ministry official said.
According to a former Indian army general, BIMSTEC can’t replace SAARC.
“BIMSTEC can’t and shouldn’t replace SAARC, but supplement it as a sub-regional grouping,” said Ashok Mehta, a former Indian army general who follows security and regional issues. “Modi had said in 2014 that opportunities must be realised through SAARC or outside of it, and among us all or some of us.”
“Because of India's preoccupation with the line of actual control with China, where tensions have resurfaced of late, and the continuing surge in the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no appetite for BIMSTEC,” Mehta told the Post in an email interview.
The meeting of SAARC foreign ministers could be helpful in preparing grounds to expedite the convening of the SAARC summit, said experts but with a caveat that given the nature of the meeting, all will depend on how the situation unfolds.
Former Ambassador PB Shah, who has also served a director at the SAARC secretariat, said that India’s interest in giving prominence to BIMSTEC is only because of the indefinite postponement of the 19th SAARC summit.
“The Goa outreach BRICS-BIMSTEC Summit in October, 2016, was held at India’s initiative to prove that BIMSTEC is an alternative to SAARC. India’s interest in BIMSTEC also depends on political relations with its four South Asian members of BIMSTEC,” said Shah. “In view of the unhealthy relations with its some of its neighbors, I think India may consider to rejuvenate the SAARC process.”