SAARC is back, but only to fight COVID-19

The question whether India’s initiative will develop into a SAARC minus Pakistan or lead to a revival of SAARC itself remains open,  writes Amb T P Sreenivasan (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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The unprecedented SAARC video conference of March 15, 2020 was a brilliant Indian initiative at a time when countries of South Asia felt lonely in their battle with a pandemic in the absence of a regional organisation. No country other than India could have asked for a revival of the dormant SAARC as it was India, which had decided to abandon SAARC rather than allow Pakistan to misuse it. India had decided to have no dealings with Pakistan till it abandoned the path of cross border terrorism. It was because India had boycotted the Islamabad SAARC summit that SAARC itself became dormant and India had initiated moves to develop an alternate arrangement for regional cooperation.

By reviving SAARC in an exceptional situation, India gave a message to the countries around the world that they should forget their differences and unite in a joint fight against the biggest health threat faced by the world in the last hundred years. In a way, India began the whole movement of international cooperation with G-20, G-7 and the UN itself through virtual conferences and there are reports that PM Modi might be named to carry the international cooperation forward.

PM Modi’s initiative was a major departure from policy on account of the health emergency. This was the reason why the other heads of state and government enthusiastically welcomed the initiative. Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohammed Solih participated in the video conference.

Pakistan's response to the proposal came late, with the country's Foreign Office spokesperson Aisha Farooqui saying Special Assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister on Health Mirza will participate in the video conference.
 
The point that Pakistan missed was that the video conference was not an empty gesture. After many years of existence, SAARC had a golden opportunity to do something concrete. PM Modi did not ask for anything in return for the bouquet of offers he made unilaterally. He offered the following, reminding us of the Gujral Doctrine (named after former Prime Minister I K Gujral), which had stipulated that India should make non-reciprocal concessions to its neighbours:

1.I propose we create a COVID-19 Emergency Fund. This could be based on voluntary contributions from all of us. India can start with an initial offer of 10 million US dollars for this fund. Any of us can use the fund to meet the cost of immediate actions. Our Foreign Secretaries, through our embassies, can coordinate quickly to finalize the concept of this Fund and its operations.

2.We are assembling a Rapid Response Team of doctors and specialists in India, along with testing kits and other equipment. They will be on stand by, to be placed at your disposal, if required.

3.We can also quickly arrange online training capsules for your emergency response teams. This will be based on the model we have used in our own country, to raise the capacity of all our emergency staff.

4.We had set up an Integrated Disease Surveillance Portal to better trace possible virus carriers and the people they contacted. We could share this Disease Surveillance software with SAARC partners, and training on using this.

5.Let us also use existing facilities, like the SAARC Disaster Management Centre, to pool in the best practices among all of us.

In other words, PM Modi had sought a full revival of SAARC, in keeping with his "Neighbours First" policy. Pakistan wasted a splendid opportunity to revive SAARC unconditionally and also gain the advantages of regional cooperation largely funded and supported by India. For Pakistan, it was more important to spurn the Indian initiative. Pakistan would rather bank on China for funding and support. It may be recalled that Pakistan made an exceptionally blind gesture to China by not withdrawing its nationals from the epicentre of the disease, Wuhan. The action may well have had its consequences. Soon after the SAARC video conference, a team of Pakistani officials flew to China to seek an assistance programme to fight Covid-19. Pakistan appears to have formed a “G-2” with China to resolve national and international problems.

For Pakistan, whatever is the issue, at the core of it is Kashmir. It does not matter even if it is a disaster as long as the dispute with India is kept alive. When Prime Minister Imran Khan decided not to attend the video conference initiated by Prime Minister Modi, it appeared that he did not want to vitiate the atmosphere, but it turned out that even the State Minister of Health Zafar Mirza was also an expert on Kashmir. He called for immediate lifting of the “lockdown” there to allow virus containment measures.

To quote him, "Equity in health is a fundamental principle of public health. In this regard, let me say that it is a matter of concern that COVID-19 has been reported from Jammu and Kashmir and in view of the health emergency, it is imperative that all 'lockdown' there must be lifted immediately. Opening up communication and movement would facilitate dissemination of information, allow distribution of medical supplies and allow containment to proceed unimpeded.”

The video conference experience was proof, if proof were needed, that Pakistan is interested in the SAARC only as a platform to raise bilateral issues. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had rightly anticipated this possibility when Bangladesh first proposed a regional organisation. She had put forward a number of conditions, including prohibition of raising bilateral issues in SAARC, which was violated every time a meeting was held. Another wise condition that she had imposed was that no meeting of SAARC should be held without the participation of all member states. This provision had helped us to isolate Pakistan at the Islamabad summit following the Uri attack. The Islamabad session was also poised to consider China’s application for full membership of SAARC, which might have embarrassed us as all members, except India, were willing to support China’s membership.

The question whether India’s initiative will develop into a SAARC minus Pakistan or lead to a revival of SAARC itself remains open. The follow-up of the video conference was truly impressive. All members have made voluntary contributions, almost matching the Indian contribution. The rules regarding the modalities for using the Fund have been framed by the SAARC Secretariat. As long as Pakistan does not raise any objection to the activities being shown as SAARC, there should be no technical hitch as Pakistan was a participant in the virtual summit. India has indicated that any agreed platform for regional cooperation is welcome, but it will be difficult to work with Pakistan even in the future. SAARC may continue as a forum for cooperation limited to Covid-9, as India continues to explore alternatives.

The SAARC is back with a limited agenda, but it looks difficult to bring it back into a full-fledged regional organisation unless India-Pakistan relations reach a new norm of cooperation. But it is better to have even a truncated SAARC than none at all.  

(The author is a former Indian ambassador and governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He can be contacted at tpsreenivasan@gmail.com)