SAARC: ‘Himalayan’ Expectations at Kathmandu

Focus

The 18th meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries in November in Nepal must take a hard look at infusing vigour and vitality into economic diplomacy. The Kathmandu summit presents an opportunity to build on earlier initiatives that can potentially alter the current scenario of dismal economic cooperation, maintains Sukanya Natarajan

From Kathmandu to Kabul, and from Dhaka to Delhi, there is a mounting acknowledgment that regional cooperation in South Asia will remain deficient unless the governments put economic compulsions ahead of political necessities, similar to the European Union and ASEAN. The truth is that SAARC has so far been moderate in its accomplishments but significantly, it is now finally ready to take off and become an economic grouping in the real sense. Or, to put it even more noticeably, SAARC is an idea whose moment in time has at long last arrived. The meeting of SAARC countries in November in Nepal must take a hard look at infusing vigour and vitality into economic diplomacy. The Kathmandu summit presents an opportunity to build on earlier initiatives that can potentially alter the current scenario of dismal economic cooperation. That is all the more acute in respect of the leadership of nuclear neighbours Pakistan and India, with the wounds of partition and the subsequent wars still festering. The bilateral meetings tend to overshadow SAARC, much to the annoyance of the region’s smaller countries. Let us hope the forthcoming summit will be a step towards achieving regional cooperation in the real sense.

Rising Profile

The 17th SAARC Summit hosted by Maldives in 2011 focussed on ‘Building Bridges’ – both in terms of physical connectivity and figurative political dialogue. This eloquently summarised the imperative of greater regional integration, and is an objective to which India is fully committed, although it did leave a yawning gap of two years before the next summit.

The 18th SAARC Summit will be hosted by Nepal in Kathmandu on November 26-27, with the focal theme of ‘Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity’. This is the third time Nepal has hosted the regional grouping. Earlier, Nepal hosted the third SAARC Summit and 11th Summit in Kathmandu in November 1987 and January 2002 respectively.

Although SAARC appears to be a lost cause for other countries outside South Asia, appearances are deceptive. That is indicated by the fact that there are now nine countries that were given ‘Observer’ status at the previous summit in Maldives outnumbering the number of member countries. These are the United States, Australia, China, the EU, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Mauritius, and Myanmar.

Socio-Economic Issues

The draft of the summit declaration in Kathmandu is almost ready and the Foreign Ministry is set to hand it over to the SAARC Secretariat. The Secretariat will circulate the draft to member states for comment and adjustment. Minister for Foreign Affairs Mahendra Bahadur Pandey has already shared the substantive content of the proposed declaration with his counterparts during the meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers on the sidelines of the 69th UN General Assembly in New York. According to Khaganath Adhikari, Foreign Ministry spokesperson, the text of the proposed draft is heavy as Nepal attempts to induct all socio-economic issues like energy, infrastructure, connectivity, trade, health, education and implementation of past accords and understanding.

Economic Diplomacy, First

Nepal appears back on track, a restive Bangladesh has got its economy going, Sri Lanka has finally ended years of civil war and Pakistan, despite internal strife, wants to bring its economy back in shape. In all the eight SAARC countries, democracy has emerged though in Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan it may still be nascent.

Given the current political stalemate, interlocutors in both India and Pakistan now see a possibility of a meeting between Modi and his counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the SAARC summit. For SAARC to succeed as a regional grouping, India and Pakistan must get their act together and engage with each other. The recent Neighbours’ First Policy adopted by the Indian government must promote the initiatives adopted by this regional grouping. The recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Nepal and the provision of aid to the Himalayan nation signal the shift from strict reciprocity to unilateral cooperation in the Indian posture. Foreign policy will no longer be driven by political necessities alone, but through economic diplomacy. Let us hope that the Heads of State in the forthcoming summit discuss longstanding issues without side-lining regional economic cooperation for the sake of national politicking.

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