The Indian diplomatic establishment is fully geared up to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the partnership between India and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)—and also the 50th anniversary of ASEAN itself, which has achieved considerable success as a regional organisation. The moot question, though, is: How has regional cooperation and integration fared in India’s own backyard?
This question is especially pertinent as the much-talked-about China factor has assumed new potency, thus making the external geopolitical environment even more unfavourable. China’s determined projection of its power into and around south Asia—as reflected in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and stepped-up bilateral cooperation with India’s neighbours—as well as the emergence of Xi Jinping as China’s “Emperor for Life” have generally negative implications for prospects of regional integration.
The south Asian states are inextricably linked through geography, shared history, and cultural heritage, but they are divided by their politics and geopolitical environment. Economic imperatives drive them towards connectivity and cooperation, but a lack of full convergence of interests keeps them apart. Consequently, south Asia’s economic development has failed to reach its optimal level. Serious constraints hamper progress towards integration within the region.
Where then is south Asia’s regionalism headed at the end of 2017? Not all the institutions that started out with optimistic intentions retain vibrancy.
Ever since the indefinite postponement of the 19th SAARC Summit that was to be held in Islamabad in November 2016, this association seems to have to gone off the radar of governments, the strategic community, and the media. The constant refrain is that SAARC is in a deep freeze. Pakistan’s continuing involvement in cross-border attacks against India and relentless refusal to let regional cooperation advance in transport, trade, transit, and other sectors have emerged as major stumbling blocks.
It is truly regrettable to see SAARC in pause mode, considering the totality of endeavours made by member-states to make it the regional grouping of choice. At its 25th anniversary in 2010, the then prime minister Manmohan Singh termed it a glass that was half-full. Seven years later, many view it as half-empty.
Yet, it is too early to dismiss SAARC as a closed shop. It continues to serve as a forum for interactions among parliamentarians, ministers, judges, officials, and experts. On Sept. 21, 2017, the SAARC council of ministers held an informal meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session to reiterate “their commitment to the SAARC process.” They also stressed the need “to promote progress and prosperity for the peoples of the south Asian region through the platform of SAARC.” Addressing them, ambassador Amjad Hussain B Sial, the new secretary-general, suggested that the grouping should prioritise its activities, but once its calendar was finalised, the programmes should be held as planned “for smooth, efficient, and effective progress in the SAARC process.”
Will the meetings of foreign secretaries, foreign ministers, and the 19th summit take place in 2018? The answer lies largely in Islamabad, but concern over delays exists in all SAARC capitals. The view in New Delhi is that Pakistan must first take initiatives to improve relations with India and signal its serious interest in supporting regional projects for connectivity. Only then will it be worthwhile to give SAARC a new start. Other member-states may take India’s side—or Pakistan’s—on this matter, but they will all be interested in an early resumption of the SAARC process.
SAARC’s plan to conclude a Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) at the 18th summit in November 2014 was derailed due to Pakistan’s opposition. From this setback emerged the idea of an MVA among four member-states of SAARC—Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN). This triggered much interest in expanding cooperation among the four to several other areas, including trade, transit, and connectivity, extending to roadways, railways, waterways, and power trade. Within a few months of SAARC’s Kathmandu Summit, BBIN began to assume a clear identity, gathering momentum as the MVA was signed by the four BBIN nations in June 2015. Addressing a meeting of the four transport ministers, the prime minister of Bhutan stated that the BBIN-MVA offered a basic framework for smooth cross-border transportation and trade. “It will not only boost trade among our countries, it will also generate greater goodwill and understanding in the sub-region and beyond,” he said.
It is, therefore, ironical that it was Bhutan which became instrumental in hampering the agreement’s implementation. Opposition emerged within Bhutan due to environmental, logistical, and commercial concerns. Consequently, the upper house of parliament failed to ratify the agreement. With Bhutan opting out of the MVA for the tenure of the present government, the remaining three countries—BIN—have now been struggling to proceed with it. Once the amended routes get finalised and the legal formalities are over, the three countries will be set to move forward. What impact this will have on ambitious proposals for cooperation in other sectors, promoted enthusiastically by several scholars and a few think tanks, remains to be seen.
The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) has been the only initiative for sub-regional cooperation which included China. Started as the “Kunming Initiative,” in 1999, it envisaged expanding links in trade, transport, energy, tourism, and cultural cooperation among the south western region of China, border regions of Myanmar and Bangladesh, and the North Eastern Region (NER) of India. A group of eminent scholars and former diplomats steered it on behalf of India even as government engagement from the other three countries was evident from the beginning. The Kunming-to-Kolkata (K2K) car rally, held in February 2013, provided a huge impetus.
Everyone understood well that the prospects for BCIM’s progress depended on the health of India-China relations. In the last phase of Manmohan Singh’s second term, New Delhi decided to inject Track I engagement by setting up a joint study group during Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang’s visit to India in May 2013. The stated purpose was to strengthen connectivity in the BCIM region. This raised hopes, especially as the first meeting of the joint study group, held in December 2013, developed consensus on the broad principles that would shape future cooperation.
With the change of government in India, New Delhi became wary of the BCIM idea. Yet, another meeting of the joint study group followed and a reference to the BCIM Dialogue Forum was included in the joint statement, issued during PM Modi’s visit to China in May 2015. However, Beijing’s decision to include BCIM in the BRI had the effect of stopping the former in its tracks. India expressed strong and well-reasoned reservations on BRI, which applied to BCIM as well since it now forms part of China’s mega connectivity project.
Comprising five countries of south Asia, viz. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, and two countries of south east Asia, viz. Myanmar and Thailand, BIMSTEC aims to build regional cooperation and connectivity in the region surrounding the Bay of Bengal. It has shown significant signs of rejuvenation in its 20th year, but its future path is not without serious challenges. The year 2018 will reveal if BIMSTEC becomes the premier grouping for cooperation and progressive integration.
The South Asian Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) is a project-based partnership among seven countries, viz. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. It focuses on four key sectors of cooperation, namely transport, trade facilitation, energy, and economic corridor development. The underlying vision encompasses shared aspirations and “sets the path to achieve those through regional collaboration.”
SASEC serves as a forum for senior officials of the participating countries and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), empowered to approve projects that become eligible for the bank’s technical and financial assistance. Since 2001, a total of 46 ADB-financed projects, with a value of over $9.1 billion, have been approved and implemented. While SASEC can hardly be compared to other regional or sub-regional institutions, it seems that it has a potentially important role to play in creating synergy with BIMSTEC.
As New Delhi rightly considers enhancing its role in the larger Indo-Pacific region, the task to make conditions congenial for meaningful cooperation in south Asia assumes even greater urgency. This challenge can be met only if India and most, if not all, neighbours work in concert for the benefit of their peoples. A new kind of political vision and stronger political will are essential tools for south Asian leaders to set their house in order.