A misplaced idea

 

 

Source: By Vappala Balachandran: Deccan Herald

 

 

There has been a lot of media attention on how Pakistan has been isolated (even outmanoeuvered) with the successful postponement of the November 2016 South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit at the instance of India and three other member nations - Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan. But behind the scenes, isolation from one platform may lead Pakistan to concentrate its energies elsewhere.

 

What is probably emerging and may gain fillip is a parallel regional economic alliance with China, Iran and the Central Asian states - an alliance that can offer Pakistan the opportunity to exploit many new opportunities not only for cementing economic bonds but also building or strengthening political equations. To understand how this dynamic may unfold, it is useful to look at how a platform like Saarc has grown over the years though neither India nor Pakistan were initially warm to the idea of such a formal regional alliance. The heightened mutual suspicion in the light of the Uri terrorist attack has brought back a divergence that has been in many ways wired and imprinted into Saarc right from its inception.

 

In fact, both India and Pakistan were initially cool to the idea of Saarc when it was originally mooted by Bangladesh President Ziaur Rahman during his meeting with Prime Minister Morarji Desai in December 1977. Bangladesh was keen to form this alliance after its quest for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) membership was unsuccessful. In 1977, King Birendra of Nepal supported the idea during a meeting in Colombo. In 1979, Ziaur Rahman got president J R Jayawardene's approval during his Colombo visit.

 

India and Pakistan were late starters. Security disputes were dominant in their thinking. While India felt that smaller powers would gang up against her, Pakistan thought that India would use her greater influence on security disputes and dominate the market. It was for this reason that the 1980 Bangladesh draft paper on Saarc avoided all references to bilateral issues, whether security or political. The first Heads of States meeting was held in Dhaka in December 1985.

 

It is not that the Saarc forum was not used to defuse Indo-Pakistan bilateral tensions. Just a year after the first Heads of State meeting, the Bangalore Summit in 1986 could soften tensions arising out of India's military exercise "Brasstacks" on the Indo-Pak border. The 1991 Colombo summit paved the way for both prime ministers to meet again in Davos in 1992. In June 2010, our Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief accompanied then home minister P Chidambaram for the Saarc interior ministers' meeting. Similarly, then prime minister Manmohan Singh asked the IB chief to accompany then home secretary R K Singh for his bilateral meeting in Islamabad in May 2012. All these were confidence building measures (CBMs).

 

However, it is also true that Pakistan was distancing itself from South Asia and looking for opportunities to build alliances with China and in West Asia. This has been a gradual process but it has led to China becoming Pakistan's biggest trading partner by 2012, garnering 17% of its total trade as against the European Union (13%), US (6.7%) and India (3.2%). Would Pakistan be adversely affected by going away from Saarc? Pakistan government statistics do not indicate that this would be the case. The percentage of Pakistan's imports from some Saarc countries during July 2015-May 2016 was: 1.33% from India, 1.33% from Sri Lanka, 3.09% from Bangladesh and 6.29% from Afghanistan. Other Saarc countries are not even mentioned. Only India (4.10%) is mentioned among Pakistan's exports to Saarc countries. China with 27.22% share tops the list of Pakistan exports.

 

Today, 8.5 million (about 4% of the Pakistani population) work abroad. About 3.8 million Pakistanis live in the Gulf. They sent $19.3 billion home as remittances in 2015. Pakistan is now banking on the $ 46 billion Kashgar (China)-Gwader(Balochistan) "China-Pakistan Economic Corridor" to develop that huge area. As many as 51 MoUs were signed during the Chinese president's 2015 visit to Pakistan for projects worth $46 billion in various sectors like security, infrastructure and energy.

 

Commercial grouping

 

Former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz (2004-2007) told a conference in Hong Kong just last month that more than 6,000 workers were employed in this project in the first three months of this calendar in addition to indirect employment. Pakistan's new proposal to start a new, expanded economic and commercial grouping could be because of this recently found confidence even after being isolated in Saarc. What would be India's loss if Pakistan leaves Saarc? It will confirm Pakistan's oft-repeated complaint, supported at times even by Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, that India is a regional bully. As the famous South Asian journalist Kanak Mani Dixit had observed: "Even if New Delhi does not act threateningly, the mere possibility of its regional domination elicits a defensive response from the neighbours."

Also, India would lose another forum for ironing out differences with Pakistan when bilateral meetings are suspended due to frosty relations, as is the case now. For example, the 12th Saarc summit at Islamabad in January 2004 had launched the "composite dialogue" on bilateral contentious issues including Kashmir during the Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting, resulting in the Indo-Pakistan joint press statement of January 6, 2004. What this suggests is that in a dynamic world, ideas of isolation may not be the best way to either build ties or contain threats. Instead, there is a case that can be made out that India in itself could be poorer because it will lose a convenient multilateral forum to defuse tensions as has been often done in the past.