India seems to be abandoning SAARC in favor of BIMSTEC

By Sankalp Gurjar–India recently hosted a meeting of security chiefs from the seven member states of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The meeting was first of its kind for BIMSTEC group, which includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. This meeting focused on terrorism, cyber, and maritime security challenges facing the region. It was decided in the meeting to establish a track 1.5 dialogue forum focused on security. Given the importance of cooperating on security-related matters, it was also decided to hold such meetings annually.

This BIMSTEC security officials’ meeting was following up the agenda set for the regional grouping at the October 2016 meeting held in Goa, India. BIMSTEC leaders were invited to Goa as part of the BRICS outreach effort in the developing world. For a South Asian nation like India, it would have been logical to invite leaders of the South Asian regional organization, known as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). But India chose to ignore SAARC and instead invited BIMSTEC leaders.

To understand the politics behind India’s decision, a look at the membership of both of these organizations is necessary. SAARC consists of eight South Asian states: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and India. BIMSTEC, on the other hand, includes five members of SAARC (Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India) and the two Southeast Asian states (Myanmar and Thailand) with coastlines along Bay of Bengal (and contiguous to South Asia). Both Myanmar and Thailand are members of the Association of South East Asian Nation (ASEAN).

SAARC was formed in 1985 while BIMSTEC has been in existence in various forms since 1997. SAARC has faced problems in the past, mostly attributed to India-Pakistan hostilities. India’s problems with Pakistan over Kashmir, terrorism, and nuclear issues have affected the working of SAARC since its inception. Hence SAARC doesn’t allow any bilateral agenda to be discussed on its platform, but even this provision hasn’t stopped the India-Pakistan rivalry from spilling over into the workings of the organization.

Meanwhile, BIMSTEC has suffered from a lack of attention. All the BIMSTEC members are also part of either SAARC or ASEAN, dominant regional groupings for their respective regions. Both these groupings have been more active and are considered more important for their member states than BIMSTEC. This is evident in the irregularity of BIMSTEC summit meetings — there have only been three so far since 2004. All its members have stakes in the security and prosperity of the Bay of Bengal, but the BIMSTEC agenda has not been pursued as actively as that of SAARC or ASEAN by its member states.

Historically, India has preferred to maintain relations on the bilateral level rather than pursue a regional agenda under the BIMSTEC framework. However, India has been an active member of SAARC, which is seen as a means to better relations with neighbors, one of the primary objectives of Indian foreign policy.

But in recent times, India’s focus seems to be changing. It is now paying more attention to BIMSTEC than SAARC — a function of its problems with Pakistan. Pakistan opposes any degree of regional integration under the SAARC framework; it has opposed connectivity initiatives in the SAARC summit and pulled out of the SAARC satellite project. Pakistani intransigence over SAARC issues has frustrated other member states time and again. That frustration was visible in the recent boycott of the SAARC summit, supposed to be hosted by Pakistan, in the wake of a terror attack in India. In addition to that, Pakistan is openly hostile to two of the SAARC member states, i.e. India and Afghanistan. Pakistani inflexibility and opposition to India limits the ability of SAARC to achieve anything worthwhile in the region.

SAARC is caught in a dilemma: without Pakistan, there cannot be any SAARC initiative but, as seen over the years, Pakistan doesn’t allow any important SAARC efforts to proceed. To break out of this deadlock, India is now channeling its energies toward BIMSTEC. BIMSTEC offers India a chance to engage with its South and Southeast Asian neighbors without being weighed down by Pakistan’s consistently unfriendly attitude.

BIMSTEC includes include India’s northern, southern, and eastern neighbors, who are part of SAARC as well. But besides Pakistan, the grouping leaves out two other SAARC states: Afghanistan and the Maldives. Barring Pakistan, India is making efforts to remain engaged with Afghanistan and the Maldives. India has established a strategic partnership with Afghanistan and provides both defense and developmental assistance. India has been actively resetting its ties with the Maldives as well; India’s minister of state for external affairs recently visited the island nation.

India’s efforts to renew its engagement with BIMSTEC offer a chance to pursue a regional cooperation agenda without facing the hostility of Pakistan. India would also be able to connect with other Southeast Asian states like Vietnam and Laos using the land and maritime connectivity via BIMSTEC members. India’s foreign policy has been paying attention to the region for the last 25 years under the rubric of its Look East policy. Now greater engagement with BIMSTEC will allow India to further engage Southeast Asian states.

These Indian initiatives suggest that a definite strategy is being drawn by the Indian decision makers to isolate Pakistan while still pursuing regional cooperative efforts. In SAARC as well as in BIMSTEC, India’s demographic and economic might is a major factor. India is a rising economy and can offer large markets for trade, investment, and energy for members states of a shared regional grouping. The attractiveness of the Indian market and military capacity of India will be key factors in the future of the Bay of Bengal region given the economic and security challenges ahead.

More efforts toward regional cooperation in BIMSTEC have the potential to make SAARC more and more irrelevant in Indian foreign policy discourse, although Pakistan will remain central to India’s foreign policy. Unless Pakistan seriously rethinks its strategy in SAARC, it will be hard to keep India and other states interested in the grouping. Pakistan may also not be interested in SAARC as it looks to receive massive Chinese investments. Without India and Pakistan’s active participation, SAARC can neither function nor foster more regional cooperation in South Asia.

(Sankalp Gurjar is a PhD Candidate at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi. This article was first published in The Diplomat on April 1, 2017)

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