How India Should Deal with Developments within SAARC
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By Tridivesh Singh Maini

How India Should Deal with Developments within SAARC

Apr. 06, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The recent events in the Maldives were yet again a reminder of increasing Chinese influence in South Asia, which New Delhi would be closely watching. The Maldives’ Ambassador to China, Mohamad Faisal, in an interview to the South China Morning Post did try to deny the fact that the Maldives was getting closer to China, dubbing India as a “brother” and China a “long lost cousin” willing to help Maldives. Yet, there is absolutely no doubt that the Yameen administration, which had imposed a 45-day state of emergency, is getting closer to China, and some strategic analysts have blamed India’s lack of coherence in dealing with the Maldives as one of the main reasons.

What should be closely observed is not just China’s steady clout in the region, but also Pakistan’s ties with other countries in India’s immediate neighborhood and attempts by Islamabad to revive the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) process. The November 2016 SAARC Summit in Pakistan was cancelled in the aftermath of the Uri terror attacks. While India was the first country to announce that it will not participate in the Summit as a mark of protest, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan also decided to boycott the summit.

Looking at developments in the context of Sri Lanka, former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa stated in an interview with The Indian Express that if he were to return to power, ties with New Delhi would remain cordial, and perhaps would be better than his previous tenure:

“Even though the present government of India may have had reservations about my government in 2014, I believe they will look at things differently now.”

Rajapaksa also pointed out that the Hambantota Project was initially offered to India but was turned down by New Delhi. This point is often made by sections of the strategic community in India who argue that New Delhi has not lapped up opportunities. India however will be taking up the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport which is rarely used and built with Chinese loans, and which is half-an-hour from Hambantota, on a 40-year lease. Sri Lanka will lease the airport by August 2018. While pitching for good relations with India, Rajapaksa was rather unequivocal in stating that Sri Lanka shared cordial relations with all three countries.

Significantly, on March 22, 2018, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, Rajapaksa’s successor, landed at Karachi for a three-day official visit. The Sri Lankan President, who is said to be favorably inclined to India compared to his predecessor, was invited as Chief Guest for the Pakistan Day celebrations on March 23, and praised the progress of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) during his meeting with Sindh Governor Muhammad Zubair. Sirisena, who also met with Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain and Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, extended support for the SAARC Summit, to be held in Pakistan, during his meeting with Abbasi.

In the first week of March, Pakistani PM Abbasi visited Nepal, and this was the first high-level foreign visit to Nepal after Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli took over as Prime Minister of Nepal in February 2018. (Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, who visited Nepal in February 2018, had met with Oli before he took office.) Former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif had visited Nepal in November 2014 to attend the SAARC Summit.

Abbasi’s visit to Nepal is significant for two reasons. The first is the India factor. KP Oli does not share particularly good relations with India, and he blames New Delhi for the downfall of his government in 2016. While Nepal was amongst the first countries which PM Modi visited after taking office (in fact he visited Nepal twice, in August and November 2014), differences over the nature of the Constitution — India wanted the Madhesis to have more of a say — resulted in protests by the Madhesis.

New Delhi should exhibit a degree of flexibility with Pakistan. In this context, some recent steps, such as India sending its representative, MOS External Affairs MJ Akbar, to attend the TAPI gas pipeline inauguration ceremony, are welcome.

During these protests, essential supplies could not go through from India to Nepal. While Nepal blamed India for the economic blockade, New Delhi stated that it was the protestors who had obstructed the supply of commodities by blocking roads. In November 2015, PM Oli urged India to end the blockade: “I strongly request that government of India and related officials … to immediately end the undeclared blockade and resume supply of essential goods and not let further negativity grow in the centuries old relationship between the two countries.”

Oli has hence sought to reduce Nepal’s dependence upon India: “We have great connectivity with India and an open border. All that’s fine and we’ll increase connectivity even further, but we can’t forget that we have two neighbors … We don’t want to depend on one country or have one option.”

There are a number of strong examples of Kathmandu’s increasing proximity to Beijing. Chinese FDI into Nepal for the first half of the fiscal year beginning July 2017 is more than double that of India’s — USD 79 million to USD 36 million. Nepal will also be part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In January 2018, China became the second internet service provider for Nepal after India.

Abbasi’s visit to Nepal was also important because both sides sought to revive the SAARC process. According to Bishnu Rimal, the Chief Adviser to PM Oli, both sides agreed not just to make SAARC a more effective organization, Pakistan also expressed its desire to host the 19th SAARC Summit. Commenting on the meeting between the two leaders, Rimal said: “The two PMs discussed about enhancing regional development. And they also agreed to make SAARC a more effective organization by infusing vigor into it and by taking other initiatives.”

Key Takeaways

First, New Delhi needs to be a bit more pragmatic in the context of its neighbors’ ties with Pakistan and China. Instead of being paranoid, it should address its key challenges, including the deterioration of its ties with Nepal (Nepalese PM Oli’s upcoming India visit may be important in this context). New Delhi should also keep a close watch on events in Sri Lanka. The February 2018 local election results were not encouraging for the ruling coalition of President Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party and PM Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party. While both are wary of Chinese influence, Beijing’s clout has not diminished significantly since Sri Lanka does not have too many options. Wickremesinghe once again stated recently that Sri Lanka needs more investment from Western countries, Japan, and India, and should not restrict itself to one country.

Second, China, which has a strong economic and strategic relationship with Pakistan, will do all it can to ensure that Pakistan remains relevant, and that the SAARC process revives. This is important because, since 2014, there has been talk of SAARC-minus-Pakistan. Pakistan had refused to sign the Motor Vehicle Agreement, which other countries — Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal — signed in June 2015. In 2016, while the other countries went along with New Delhi’s boycott, things have changed within the region, and growing Chinese influence clearly means that other countries in the region will not ignore SAARC.

Third, New Delhi should exhibit a degree of flexibility with Pakistan. In this context, some recent steps, such as India sending its representative, MOS External Affairs MJ Akbar, to attend the TAPI gas pipeline inauguration ceremony, are welcome. A lot will depend upon the situation across the Line of Control, as well as the way domestic politics in Pakistan pan out in the run up to the elections. India should send a clear message that it will consider attending a SAARC Summit hosted by Pakistan subject to the condition that Islamabad takes tangible action against terror groups.

In conclusion, New Delhi needs to do a realistic appraisal of its position with its South Asian neighbors and recalibrate its policies where necessary. Serious foreign policy matters including ties in the neighborhood should not be held hostage to domestic politics and sloganeering. New Delhi should leverage its advantages in South Asia, while also taking note of its handicaps — and rectifying where possible.

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