SAARC, or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, is an intergovernmental organisation operating as a geopolitical union of the South Asian nations, with the aim of advancing economic and political integration in the region of South Asia. Despite 18 successful summits, escalating tensions between India and Pakistan leading to the 19th summit’s cancellation, SAARC has been dormant in the arena of international diplomacy and cooperation since then. Five SAARC member states share borders with China, from where the novel coronavirus spread, thereby providing an opportunity for South Asian nations to resist this emergency through information sharing and regional cooperation. In the light of this, the question must be asked whether this could be a sign of a revival of trust, cooperation and promotion of welfare amongst member nations. The answer is that it is too early to say for sure. Far too many challenges stand in the way, particularly in relation to the numerous policies adopted by India in order to gain more regional influence, and her pursuance of a policy of diplomatic isolation in relation to Pakistan.
SAARC or South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is an intergovernmental organisation which in real terms operates as a union of South Asian nations. The current member states are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Around 21 per cent of the world’s population calls South Asia home; furthermore, SAARC member states occupy around 3 per cent of the world’s land area. Herein lies the potential for regional and economic growth. To this end, SAARC was founded on December 8, 1985 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Since its formation, SAARC has held 18 successful summits; however, owing to escalating tensions between India and Pakistan, the 19th summit that was to be held in November 2016 at Islamabad was cancelled. Since then, SAARC has remained almost dormant in the arena of international diplomacy and cooperation.
The South Asian region has suffered a lot of casualties as a result of the global health crisis triggered by SARS-nCoV-2 virus. It is important to note that a total of five SAARC member states (Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan) share borders with China, where the novel coronavirus first emerged. The origin of the novel coronavirus can be traced to a seafood market in Wuhan region of China in November 2019, where it was first reported and since then has spread to 212 countries and territories so far. COVID-19 is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by the SARS-nCoV-2 virus, with a mortality rate ranging between 0.2 to 15 per cent depending on factors such as a patient’s age and pre-existing health conditions. At present, there are around 5.1 million confirmed cases, over 3,00,000 deaths worldwide out of which the US alone accounts for more than a million confirmed cases, and more than 100,000 deaths from the infection. According to data, the countries worst hit by the virus are the USA, Italy, Spain, Iran and more recently the UK. Broadly speaking, the novel coronavirus has brought European life and economy to a halt and even superpowers like the USA could do little more than to impose lockdowns in an effort to control the spread of the virus. The numbers back home look equally grim with a death toll of over 3,500 and more than 125,000 affected despite a strict nationwide lockdown for over a month.
Interestingly, the COVID crisis has proven to be a blessing in disguise for SAARC as it provided an opportunity for the South Asian nations to come together and combat this health emergency through information sharing and regional cooperation. With New Delhi taking the lead, talks resumed between the nations and a special SAARC video conference was held on March 15, 2020 during which Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged his neighbouring counterparts to be vigilant as the region is densely populated. The SAARC conference culminated in the development of the Coronavirus Emergency Fund with contributions from all the member states and raising a sum of US$ 21.8 million. The conference was deemed a success as it was attended by representatives from all SAARC nations including Pakistani Special Assistant for Health, Zafar Mirza. This move was much needed and appreciated as the video conference was held at a time when, after China and Italy, Iran was emerging as a major epicentre of the pandemic. With the two member states Afghanistan and Pakistan sharing borders with Iran, the threat of mass infection in the region was real. Also, the conference took place at a time when there were less than 150 COVID-19 cases officially reported in the region. Furthermore, as a follow-up to the SAARC leaders’ conference, meetings between health and trade officials discussing their respective countries’ situation and experiences in combating the COVID-19 outbreak were also held.
At this juncture, it is pertinent to ask whether the recent developments signal towards a new chapter in SAARC history where there will be trust, respect for international borders and overall promotion of welfare amongst member nations? The answer is not simple. Presently, SAARC, as an organisation, faces many challenges owing primarily to the lack of trust among its member nations. The cessation of dialogue between India and Pakistan, key players in the region, is a case in point. The Indian policy of diplomatically isolating Pakistan for its support to terror organisations, both in the region and globally, and Pakistan’s insistence on the rollback of India’s announcement of bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories has created a deadlock. Furthermore, India’s new Citizenship Amendment Bill has upset many of its neighbours and allies.
The recent Hizbul activity in Handwara, J&K and recommencement of Taliban’s offensive after the Peace Deal in Afghanistan prove that terror organisations are still potent amidst COVID crisis. Also, India’s sustained initiatives towards regional influence have caused some of her old allies like Nepal and Sri Lanka to look eastwards. The rising tension between India and Nepal over cartographic disputes is a testament to this. The dispute is not new; in fact, it dates back to the Treaty of Sugauli, 1816 between British India and Nepal that demarcated the border between the two states. According to the Treaty, river Mahakali served as a functional border between erstwhile British India and Nepal but the fact that neither side could agree upon the origin and location of the river is the root of the dispute. Adding to that, the strategic importance of the areas in question, namely Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiadora that are located on the trijunction of India, China and Nepal complicates the matter even further. Many believe that Kathmandu may be acting at the behest of Beijing as the new map of Nepal, that claims the above-mentioned territories, was released just days after clashes between the Indian and Chinese defence personnel in Ladakh. Growing Chinese interference in the South Asian region poses a major challenge for SAARC.
Is there a silver lining for SAARC after all? It is too early to comment on this, but SAARC’s assessment would be incomplete if we do not take into account the measures and effectiveness of other regional organisations in combating the COVID challenge and compare them with SAARC’s efforts. The European Union did not reach out to Italy during the worst phase of the pandemic and has still not come up with any solid measure, despite the continent is going through trying times with COVID numbers rising in all parts of Europe. Similarly, ASEAN could not coordinate efforts towards containing the pandemic initially but has recently held a summit pledging to share knowledge after three of its key players China, Japan and South Korea have suffered severely at the hands of the pandemic along with the fear of a second wave of the infection looming over China. However, just knowledge sharing is not enough to prevent a crisis of this scale. SAARC’s future depends on how effectively it deals with the pandemic by acting swiftly and brushing aside disputes among member nations for the benefit of the region. What the region needs is a leadership that is willing to take charge of the health policies of member states and oversee the supply of protective gear, ventilators and other medical supplies. The current situation presents an opportunity for India to shine as we are currently the largest manufacturer of protective gears in the region and could help other nations in need.
In the years to come, we will be judged by how well we could cope with the challenges of our time. COVID has provided an excellent opportunity for the revival of regional organisations to reaffirm their existence and serve their purpose of economic and political integration for the welfare of people.
Aishwarya Pokhriyal is Research Intern at CPPR. Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.