Revitalising SaarcOli has the capacity and opportunity to act as the champion of Trans-Himalayan cooperation and resurrect the Saarc process
As its current Chair and permanent host of the secretariat, Nepal under the leadership of Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli is trying to revitalise the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc). Pakistani prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s visit some time ago, followed by Indian PM Narendra Modi’s planned visit now—significantly soon after his informal summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping—could be important if Oli and his team can focus on the following.
Transforming the Trans-Himalayas
Breakneck advancements in transport and communication technology have no longer rendered the Himalayas as the natural physical barrier separating China from South Asia. Cross connections from north and south to further east and west of the Himalayas has forced China and South Asia to come closer. And much to India’s discomfort China has been courting most countries in South Asia too—a region that India traditionally considered to be its backyard.
Recent reports, highlighting India’s concerns with Chinese investments in and around South Asia, reshaping not just economics but also the politics of the region, reflect the need to intellectually comprehend and politically and diplomatically manage the cooperative and competitive nature of the rise of India—the pivotal power in South Asia—and next door neighbour China.
Strengthening cooperation while managing their competition and keeping the Trans-Himalayas peaceful is important for the neighbours but also for China and India. So, they must come together to transform the region, first through the power of new ideas rather than following historical stereotypes. Only then can other forms of cooperation in trade, connectivity, investments, technology etc. benefiting both sides of the Himalayas be realised.
Transforming South Asia
South Asia’s own house is in disorder. Violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, turmoil in the Maldives, politics in Bangladesh and problems of post-conflict transition management in Sri Lanka and Nepal have been wasting vital human and social capital, natural and financial resources and even external goodwill and support. India presents a hopeful picture. A politically stable, economically and militarily strong and diplomatically confident India is crucial for the region. But even then, relations with the US, China and Pakistan could profoundly change India and consequently South Asia.
In this age of unlimited access to knowledge, technology and financing, what has been preventing South Asia from positive transformation by using its own plentiful natural and human resources as well as external investments? What keeps South Asia so divided internally and poor regionally? Massive investments in better infrastructure and livelihoods with dignified employment could drastically alter the South Asian socio-economic, political and security situation. But no society, country or region can really transform itself with external investment and influence alone, without internal preparations and readiness. If misused debts can be “traps” as many experienced before Chinese money started flowing.
Beyond short term electoral goals, from a long term national and regional perspective, South Asia’s challenges can be addressed only within a new paradigm of an enlarged and integrated market harmonising the individual and national with regional and global good. South Asians must start building a new political community connecting all peoples, societies and states for collective prosperity and security of the region as well as to deal with extra-regional influence with unity and strength.
Such new political and economic community building starts by restructuring the South Asian states, harmonising policies and strengthening sub-national to trans-national structures as well as accommodating new and emerging actors. The Europeans started doing so in the aftermath of the two devastating World Wars but are now under pressure from re-emerging ideological and strategic fault lines. Combining available information with usable knowledge, South Asians need to work with a priori wisdom rather than wait for painful a posteriori experience.
For this, South Asia needs leaders able to grasp new ideas and build institutions to best cater to the needs and aspirations of all South Asians. Modi’s personal “sab ka sath, sab ka bikas” vision, the “neighbourhood first” policy and the invitation to the South Asian Heads of Government to his inauguration raised hope of a new South Asia and a revitalised Saarc, but soon succumbed to the pressure of business as usual.
Saarc’s current mandate makes contentious and political issues untouchable. Moreover, with a feeble secretariat and the Secretary General acting more in the capacity of an administrative officer, it is unrealistic to expect Saarc to perform its crucial role of meeting the ideas gap at the national and regional levels. That makes transforming the regional grouping by changing its mandate and de-bureaucratising the secretariat vital for any initiatives of national transformation through deeper regional integration in South Asia.
Saarc today suffers from many problems. But the attitude of its pivotal power, that “Saarc was born with anti-Indian zest” and relations between its two most powerful members—along with the collective decision to totally bureaucratise the secretariat—are at the centre. As the most powerful member, by far the largest in land, population, economy and military, India’s political leadership bears special responsibility to lead the Saarc process forward or else inspire the smaller members to lead the transformative process by providing intellectual, diplomatic and financial support.
Over the years, world politics has taken a thespian turn with many countries leaving their difference behind to improve their bilateral relations. Under such developments, it would only seem prudent for India and Pakistan to transform their acrimonious relationship to an amicable one. Further, as the current Chair and host, Oli is in a unique position to talk to Modi that a more effective Saarc is not against India but is in the interest of all members including India. On the contrary, resistance to strengthen Saarc risks marginalising not only the grouping itself but also India’s pivotal role in South Asia in regional affairs, as many events have shown.
Personally, KP Oli has skilfully utilised the Trans-Himalayan competition to consolidate power in one of its epicentres. With relations with China strong and relations with India—and the personal rapport with Modi—on a new even keel, he now also has the opportunity to act as the champion of Trans-Himalayan cooperation and hence emerge as a statesman of stature. He can start from the stalled SAARC summit by convincing India and Pakistan to empower the Pakistani Secretary General to prepare for a business-like Summit at the Secretariat without the usual fanfare and cost but with a transformative agenda.
Simkhada is a former permanent representative of Nepal to the UN