Context: The year 2020 marked the sixth year since the leaders of the eight nations that make up SAARC were able to meet. The grouping, which cannot convene unless all leaders agree to meet, is unlikely to do so in the near future.
19th SAARC Summit deferred
- Most countries recently agreed that it is not the “opportune time” to convene the summit as proposed by Pakistan, given the COVID-19 situation.
- However Nepal said that the delay in convening the 19th SAARC Summit and the absence of formal meetings of the SAARC Charter bodies since 2016, has greatly impacted the functioning of SAARC.
- Recently, India had also refused to attend the 19th edition of the SAARC summit, due to be held in Islamabad in 2016, over the issue of Pakistan’s continued support to terror groups.
- India’s problems with Pakistan on terrorism, territorial claims and on its role in blocking SAARC initiatives on connectivity and trade are well known.
- India’s refusal to allow Pakistan to host the SAARC summit is like giving Pakistan a ‘veto’ over the entire SAARC process.
- India’s steps, more bilateral
- India stepped up its health and economic diplomacy in the region, but apart from one SAARC meeting convened by India in March, these have been bilateral initiatives, not a combined effort for South Asia.
- These are some of the reasons that led all SAARC leaders other than Mr. Modi to urgently call for the revival of SAARC during their charter day messages.
Relevance of SAARC: The novel coronavirus pandemic and China’s aggressions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) shone a new spotlight on this mechanism.
- Reviving SAARC is crucial to countering the common challenges brought about by the pandemic.
- To begin with, studies have shown that South Asia’s experience of the pandemic has been unique from other regions of the world, and this needs to be studied further in a comprehensive manner in order to counter future pandemics.
- Vaccine distribution: Such an approach is also necessary for the distribution and further trials needed for vaccines, as well as developing cold storage chains for the vast market that South Asia represents.
A time for regional initiatives
- In the longer term, there will be a shift in priorities towards health security, food security, and job security, that will also benefit from an “all-of” South Asia approach.
- India’s only regional trading agreement at present is the South Asian Free Trade Area, or SAFTA (with SAARC countries).
- In dealing with the challenge from China too, both at India’s borders and in its neighbourhood, a unified South Asian platform remains India’s most potent countermeasure.
- Over the past year, India-Pakistan issues have impacted other meetings of SAARC as well, making it easier for member countries, as well as international agencies to deal with South Asia as a fragmented group rather than a collective.
Despite the despondency, the rationale for SAARC’s existence remains intact: while history and political grievances may be perceived differently, geography is reality.
What is SAARC?
- The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is the regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of nations in South Asia founded in 1985 with 7 member nations.
- The SAARC Secretariat was established in Kathmandu in 1987.
- The SAARC Secretariat is supported by following Regional Centres established in the Member States to promote regional cooperation.
Members and Observers of SAARC
- Its member states include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
- Observer Nations
- States with observer status include Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea and the United States.
South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA).
- Although the agreement was reached at the 12th SAARC summit in 2004, it came into force on 1st January 2006.
- The agreement not only created a free trade area of 1.8 billion people in SAARC nations (except Afghanistan), but also removed trade barriers to increase the level of economic cooperation.
Aim of SAFTA
- The main objective of the agreement is to promote competition in the area and to provide equitable benefits to the countries involved.
- It aims to benefit the people of the countries by bringing transparency and integrity among the nations.
- SAFTA encourages and elevates common contracts among the countries such as medium and long term contracts.
- It involves agreement on tariff concessions like national duties concession and non tariff concession.