GP Insights # 419, 26 September 2020
During 24-26 September, a virtual meet between the foreign ministers of the eight SAARC countries was held. COVID-19 and its management were the primary focus of the meeting. The agenda to hold the 19th SAARC Summit in Pakistan failed to gain consensus from the member states once again. With a need to focus on the pandemic in respective countries, the Summit has been put on hold.
According to a press release: "The Hon'ble Ministers also emphasized the need to work collectively to overcome the adverse impacts of the pandemic in the region. In this context, they appreciated the initiative of the Hon'ble Prime Minister of India in convening the SAARC Leaders' Video Conference on COVID-19 in March this year."
What is the background?
First, recent history highlights the regional organization's inability to hold annual summits. SAARC was established in 1985; however, there have been only 18 annual summits. A crisis as big as the COVID-19 also has failed to bring the eight countries on board for a formal summit to take forward regional cooperation.
Second, the absence of regional spirit. South Asia, as a region, has never been known for its regional identity. National identities are always placed above the South Asian identity. Though the countries have several similarities on the social, economic, historical and cultural front, a common binding identity is absent. This has been a hindrance for the functioning of SAARC, since the time of its establishment.
Third, in South Asia, bilateral relations are prioritized over the regional. The member states engage bilaterally in order to address issues, particularly matters relating to security. While India-Pakistan relations continue to plague the SAARC, India's relations with Nepal and Bangladesh have also witnessed a downturn. Economic issues and cooperation are also dealt at the bilateral level. Trade within South Asia is negligible when compared to other regions of the world.
What does it mean?
First, though SAARC is not the only organization to not come together during the pandemic, COVID-19 has further exposed the lack of confidence in regional institutions and arrangements in South Asia. The response to the crisis has been mostly individual, rather than a united front at regional and international levels.
Second, the member states are looking beyond the SAARC. The member states are looking up to external players like China, Japan and ASEAN for economic collaborations and aid. India is focusing on its policy towards ASEAN, Indo-Pacific and BIMSTEC in particular.
Third, the intent for and sustenance of cooperation. The perennial question in the region is whether cooperation can be sustained. India's size, its intent and its bilateral relations have played a role in SAARC's performance.