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Dr Khurram Abbas: BIMSTEC cannot be a suitable alternative to SAARC

Dr Khurram Abbas: BIMSTEC cannot be a suitable alternative to SAARC

Dr Khurram Abbas is the director of India Study Center (ISC) at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI). Previously he served as Research Fellow (RF) at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI). Dr Abbas has extensively worked on the foreign and defense policies of the six GCC States with particular emphasis on Pakistan and Arab countries, China and Arab countries, and India and Arab countries. He regularly delivers lectures at International and National universities and presents papers at national and international conferences. He also contributes to academic journals and national/international dailies. Dr Abbas has five book chapters, twelve research articles, and more than a hundred newspaper articles to his credit. Kamal Dev Bhattarai of ApEx talked to him about the South Asian issues including the chances of revival of SAARC. 

How do you view the current situation of regionalism in South Asia?

In a world engulfed by traditional and non-traditional issues facing survival, security and welfare of humanity, no state can afford to effectively handle all the problems on its own. Environmental, socio-political, cultural and economic issues are of unprecedented volume and scale and require an interwoven, comprehensive collective approach. This can only be done through multilateral mechanisms particularly at regional level. Regionalism is, henceforth, not a choice but a compulsion in the contemporary world. This is even more crucial in the case of South Asia which, being the most populous yet least integrated region, has been coming across multiple challenges of horrendous nature like poverty, natural calamities and cultural conflicts at frequent intervals. Unfortunately, regional cooperation is missing in South Asia when the region needs it the most. Most of the smaller states are passionate about reviving the process. Yet such cooperation is only possible when the bigger states, especially India and Pakistan, agree to join hands for its revival.

Why is there stalemate in the SAARC process?

With an unmatched market size and population, with a plethora of emerging economies, and rich natural resources, South Asia could have plucked the fruits of regional integration more than any other region. Sensing the need for easing trade restrictions and adopting collective strategies in the face of multilateral challenges including climate change, human security and others, countries in the region agreed to form SAARC as a platform to strategize and multiply their efforts on multiple fronts. The forum was aware of the fact that bilateral issues between various states may pose a threat to the effectiveness of SAARC. This fear motivated the member states to categorically drop the idea of using the platform to vent grievances of bilateral nature and focus on multilateral issues instead. This worked for around three decades as the member states moved toward integrated approach and collective mechanisms of welfare, with a snail pace though. However, the very threat of exploiting the organization to serve self-interest under the garb of bilateral issues materialized when the new government in New Delhi attempted to thwart the ongoing cooperation on the pretext of the so-called cross-border terrorism. 

SAARC is in fact a platform that, apart from providing opportunities for regional integration, can ensure balance in the region and establish checks on aspiration of a state to become regional hegemon while exploiting smaller states. It is evident from the events of a decade that India has been ambitious to lay the part of the policing force of South Asia using its larger clout and external support. SAARC could prove to be an obstacle in its way, so India tactfully neutralized the forum while blaming Pakistan without solid evidence.

Is there any process of revival of SAARC?

Lately, there have been efforts at the diplomatic level between the member countries to revive the SAARC process. The SAARC Secretariat is in touch with all members and the secretary general of the organization has been paying official visits to the member states to gauge the environment in this respect. During his visits to Male, New Delhi and Islamabad, the SAARC secretary general exchanged notes with dignitaries on revitalizing the SAARC process. It is significant that all three countries that hosted the secretary general expressed their commitment to revive the desired role of the organization. However, revival of SAARC is a task easier said than done. But one can be optimistic about it keeping in view the positive gestures of member states. The first step toward reviving SAARC is nothing else but to convene its highest body, i.e. the SAARC Summit, which has been dormant for about a decade. The summit will open new avenues for revitalizing cooperation among member states and will ensure a tangible return of SAARC at the regional horizon.

Can BIMSTEC serve as an alternative to SAARC?

BIMSTEC cannot be a suitable alternative to SAARC due to several reasons. The first and foremost reason is that while SAARC geographically represents a particular region, BIMSTEC, in its essence, is not a regional arrangement. Its members consist of the countries that fall in two different rather distinct regions. They do not share their frontiers, values, problems and challenges. Also, distinct circumstances of each country do not allow them to join hands in adopting similar approaches to tackle their issues. Additionally, every member of BIMSTEC is already part of a regional organization: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka share the SAARC forum, while Thailand and Myanmar are part of ASEAN. South Asia at large will never be able to benefit from BIMSTEC the way it can utilize SAARC for a collective good. In addition to that, South Asian countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan will not be willing to accept BIMSTEC as an alternative to SAARC. This is evident from a recent debate which took place in Nepal’s House of Representatives that met to discuss the BIMSTEC Charter a few weeks back. At maximum, BIMSTEC can be classified as a loose arrangement of cooperation between two regions that is yet to bag any tangible achievement.

Should South Asian countries consider forming a new regional organization to replace SAARC?

SAARC is one of the oldest regional groupings that is about to complete four decades of its formation. Despite unfavorable circumstances, internal and external irritants, SAARC has contributed to the trust building among regional powers. Although its performance cannot be rated as satisfactory, the association has come a long way from where it started in 1985. SAARC regional centers in the member states, South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), SAARC Development Fund (SDF), South Asian University (SAU), Disaster Management Initiatives (DMI), and SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme are some of the milestones which SAARC has achieved. Although everyone of these initiatives calls for further deliberation in order to maximize the output, the journey is in the making. South Asian countries were able to reach this destination through years of efforts, trust-building measures and mechanism formulations. Abandoning SAARC to turn toward establishing a new regional organization will be nothing more than reinventing the wheel. SAARC needs to be revived and revitalized. This will save a lot of time, energy, resources and will help South Asia to reintegrate in a better, time- and cost-effective manner.