Another Jolt To SAARC Process
Kamal Dev Bhattarai
Change in government leadership cannot bring fundamental changes in the country’s foreign policy. The basic principles and priorities of foreign policy remain intact irrespective of whichever party or leader leads the government. However, some visionary and charismatic leaders could make some differences employing new methods and ways. With new Imran Khan as a new prime minister of Pakistan, there were optimisms that Pakistian-India relation will improve with positive implications towards maintaining regional peace and development. The early days after the elections were very positive.
India congratulated the people of Pakistan for successfully holding the elections. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi telephoned his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan to congratulate for taking the post of prime minister, a positive step towards the initiation of dialogue. Later, Pakistani Prime Minister Khan wrote a letter to Indian PM Modi expressing his willingness to revive the peace talks between two countries that remain in limbo for three years.
This positive vibe in bilateral relation was followed by agreement between two countries to hold foreign minister-level talks on the margin of 73th session of United Nations General Assembly. All things were going well, but India suddenly cancelled the planned meeting in New York. The past evidences show that when political leadership of both countries reach at the level of negotiation, some unpleasant things happen in the border spoiling all positive environment, leading both countries towards confrontation. This has happened again.
Other South Asian countries would not take the side in the bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan. All outstanding issues must be resolved bilaterally. Our key concern is tension between India and Pakistan is spoiling the environment of peace, stability and development of this region. To achieve growth, stability and development of this region, peace between the two nuclear powers is necessary but that is not happening and there are no indications of thaw between two countries.
The prospects of regional connectivity have been badly affected due to the hostile relations between two countries. When Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, there were some hopes of improvement in bilateral relation but that did not last long. In 2014 when Modi became prime minister, both sides demonstrated willingness to bridge the gap between the two countries. However, spade of terrorist activities in the border led the cancellation of scheduled meeting. In 2015, both countries were preparing to initiate Comprehensive Dialogue between two countries but they were cancelled due to various border related incidents.
Our hope is if there is peace between the two countries, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) will be revived. The regional body has been the hostage of rivalry between the two countries since three years ago though it is not the first time. With the purpose of reviving the SAARC process, Nepal as a chair of SAARC organised a meeting of SAARC foreign ministers on the margin of 73rd session of UNGA. Indian Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj left the meeting of SAARC foreign ministers in midway. So, the meeting initiated by Nepal was not fruitful as there were not concrete discussions on reviving the SAARC process.
The meeting was overshadowed by India-Pakistan tension and it could not make any progress towards reviving the regional body. There is blame-game between India and Pakistan about holding the SAARC summit. Indicating to Pakistan, India is saying that regional atmosphere is not appropriate for holding the summit.
Pakistan, on the other hand, is saying that India is disrupting the SAARC process. The 19th SAARC summit was scheduled to take place in Islamabad in November 2016 but it was abruptly cancelled after India refused to participate. The prospects of SAARC summit in the near future are almost impossible. In 2018, there are no chances of holding such conferences.
With delay in holding SAARC summit, there are fears that overall SAARC process will be in peril. With inactive SAARC, it seems that India wants to push the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). In this context, Nepal and other SAARC members should be serious about reviving the SAARC process.
In the BIMSTEC summit held in Kathmandu last month, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli made a mention of SAARC. He said that SAARC and BIMSTEC complement but not substitute each other. Other heads of the state or government of South Asian countries, however, did not mention about the SAARC. So, time is to make an appropriate environment for holding the stalled SAARC summit.
All South Asian countries are talking about connectivity but derailing the SAARC process it cannot be achieved. In the past there are several instances that despite the tensions, both countries have participated in the SAARC summit.
In 2004, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee attended the SAARC Summit held in Islamabad. In SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu in 2002, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf held a brief chat. So, despite the strained bilateral relations, India and Pakistan must be ready to hold the SAARC Summit. Despite the tensions, both countries should agree to hold next SAARC summit as soon as possible. This is beneficial for all countries, including India which is advocating for greater connectivity in the region to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.