PM Modi government can’t ignore revival of SAARC

It is good to have harmonious relations with neighbours. Though the initiative has to come from one side, there should be a sense of reciprocity from the other side as well. Overall, it is the will to have good neighbourly relations that matter for both sides.

Gestures and reciprocity can build up the process. In our daily life, you can opt to change your place and go and settle in a neighbourhood of your choice. But this is not so in case of the country to country relations in a region.

You just have to live with your neighbours. This is what the former Prime Minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, said in his effort to normalise relations with Pakistan.

The bitterness in India-Pakistan relations has stalled the process of working of the South Asian body — SAARC — which is meant for economic cooperation, trade and connectivity in the region. Sane wisdom would say that political differences should be discussed at a different platform, divorced from economic activity.

India and China have a longstanding boundary dispute which is being negotiated in a different platform, while matters of cooperation between the two countries is an ongoing process. The boundary between India and China is peaceful despite the border dispute. This example should be followed in India-Pakistan relations.

The major dispute between New Delhi and Pakistan is over Kashmir and terrorism. India maintains that talks and terrorism cannot go together. Islamabad should stop exporting terrorism to India. It should develop a will for economic cooperation in the region for which its relations with India needs to be harmonious.

The trade war between the two countries would not be the interests of the region. Equally, Pakistan should be sincerely interested in the peace in Afghanistan.

Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Gas Pipeline is an example of the will expressed by the countries in the region for cooperation. The project when completed will benefit the region.

Islamabad has committed to complete the project pipeline in the country by 2022. Another proposed project Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) is in a difficult situation owing to US sanctions against Tehran.

Islamabad has not given access to India to export goods to Afghanistan. India has found an alternative by developing Chabahar port in Iran and linking by rail line up to Afghanistan for the transport of goods.

This connectivity, if extended, can cover Central Asian countries and also help to connect with North-South Corridor to Europe which is yet to materialise. This is what India had to do in the face of non-cooperation by Pakistan.

It should also work out suitable arrangements in face of US sanctions against Iran, particularly for import of crude oil taking the US on board. The fact is that “Neighbourhood First” policy has so far failed to make South Asia a coherent bloc. But hope should not be given up.

While beginning his first innings as the prime minister in 2014, all SAARC leaders were invited for his swearing-in ceremony. Subsequently, a satellite dedicated to SAARC nations was launched.

Further, New Delhi plans to launch a 20-tonne space station by 2030 on its own to conduct microgravity experiments. If this launch will be successful then India will join the elite club of the US, Russia and China.

It has plans to send a human being to space under Gaganyaan Mission by 2022. There are also plans to explore the atmosphere of the Sun and Venus. India’s unmanned Chandrayaan-2 Mission will take off on July 15, this year, to explore south pole of the moon that has been uncharted so far.

The benefits of India’s space programme can be extended to the region and also serve the needs of connectivity. SAARC countries can work out to their advantage in the ongoing trade war between the US and China.

However, beginning his second innings as prime minister, Modi chose to invite leaders of BIMSTEC – a group of countries that include Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan. It excludes some South Asian neighbours like Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Maldives. BIMSTEC serves to connect South Asia with ASEAN.

It is a bloc for economic cooperation, trade and connectivity and is certainly not an alternative to SAARC that includes other South Asian neighbours like Pakistan, the Maldives and Afghanistan.

After swearing in, Modi made his first visit to the Maldives where the changed dispensation is favourable to India’s interests. He sent his new external affairs minister, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to Bhutan.

For the swearing-in ceremony, prime minister of Mauritius Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, representing the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and president of Kyrgyz Republic Sooronbay Jeenbeov — who is the chair of SCO was also invited.

SCO, Eurasian Union, IORA, ASEAN and CICA are India’s extended neighbourhood. But there is an urgent need to make the South Asian body SAARC a vibrant bloc which comes under India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy,

It is the opportune moment to revive SAARC as India’s good relations with the Maldives and Sri Lanka have been restored. The only stumbling block in the way of regional development is India-Pakistan relations. Modi government has to take new initiatives in bringing Pakistan to the table.

There is a hope that the senior diplomat and former foreign secretary and who is now the new minister for external affairs, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, will be able to initiate the process.

Pakistan should be prepared not to act under the influence of any big powers be it US or China. Priority should be economic cooperation in the region. Any political differences can be negotiated bilaterally.

A multilateral forum like SAARC should be allowed to work smoothly for trade and economic development of the region. It is high time Pakistan should realise the situation and take advantage of India’s “Neighbourhood First Policy”.

If SAARC becomes vibrant and robust, the region’s relations with Central Asian and Eurasian countries in the extended neighbourhood will mark considerable improvement.

BIMSTEC, however, does not suffer from major hiccups and therefore can act as a bridge between SAARC and ASEAN to fulfil the “Äct East Policy”. BIMSTEC can embark on economic development and trade within the bloc.

If entire south Asia acts in unison as a bloc for economic development and withstands pressures from big powers like the US and China it can really be a force in Asia and Indo-Pacific and in the extended neighbourhood.

Ashok B Sharma is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.

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