External and Internal Challenges to Reinvigorating SAARC

Brookings India Briefing Book

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious development plan for India requires one fundamental condition: a no-war environment in the immediate neighborhood. Modi has emphasized this crucial need in words and deeds on several occasions and in myriad settings. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly he stressed the importance of regional cooperation on the grounds that a “nation’s destiny is linked to its neighborhood” and promised to give the “highest priority on advancing friendship and cooperation with her [India’s] neighbors”. His efforts to empower SAARC are likely to manifest even more clearly at the Kathmandu summit in November 2014.

A slew of bilateral meetings with neighboring countries over the past few months has contributed significantly to the hope that this SAARC summit might reinvigorate not only the organization but also give other options for India to cooperate with other SAARC members. Indeed, strong bilateral relations are valuable for extended cooperation within a multilateral context. Conversely, however, acrimonious bilateral ties as well as domestic politics can stall multilateral agreements and prevent SAARC from achieving its full potential.

Thus, Modi’s vision for SAARC is confronted by external and internal challenges. Externally, India’s bilateral relations with its neighbors, particularly Pakistan, could stymie his SAARC initiative. As Modi warned in the same UN speech, a bilateral dialogue and cooperation with Islamabad is only possible in a “peaceful atmosphere, without the shadow of terrorism” and that “Pakistan must also take its responsibility seriously to create an appropriate environment for it”.

Some commentators note that regional integration “should not be held hostage to the resolution of inter-state disputes,” and view increased regional cooperation as a means to ameliorate inter-state disputes by opening up new avenues for peace. It is in this spirit that the SAARC mandate excludes discussion on bilateral issues.

But, as the SAARC experience reveals, bilateral skirmishes have repeatedly stood in the way of regional cooperation and managing bilateral relations would greatly aid SAARC. Since it was formed in 1985, the functioning of SAARC has been marred by acrimony between its members, and various SAARC summits have been affected by such conflicts.

Expectations from the 2014 Summit have similarly dimmed over the past few weeks owing to the escalation along the India-Pakistan border beyond the quotidian skirmishes that typically characterize this region. The continued bilateral strain has greatly hampered the prospects of enhanced cooperation through SAARC. Managing this relationship is central to the larger goals of SAARC; research suggests that an improvement in India-Pakistan ties could enable SAARC to emerge as one of the largest trading blocs, in manufacturing and services.

Beyond Pakistan, India’s relations with almost all of its neighbors have been tenuous at various points. These relations will influence the role India can play in the context of SAARC. Moreover, in the coming years, India’s engagement with a post-American Afghanistan will play a significant role in providing an environment conducive to regional integration. In fact Afghanistan presents a valuable opportunity for India to collaborate with other SAARC countries to ensure a smooth transition and sustained development once the U.S. withdraws from the region.

Internally, the inability of New Delhi to effectively engage key state governments bordering SAARC neighbors as stakeholders in the process is also a challenge that needs to be addressed. The previous government’s stance towards Sri Lanka was significantly influenced by its relations with political allies in Tamil Nadu, while the West Bengal government’s opposition to the Teesta River Agreement left India’s previous prime minister embarrassed in talks with Dhaka. Thus, it is also crucial that New Delhi revamp its foreign policy apparatus for the region.

While prime minister Modi does not have to contend with the coalition compulsions that faced his predecessor, the role of state governments remains essential nonetheless, to ensure that promises made by New Delhi are delivered, and that policies are not violated at the ground-level. The establishment of a new division within the foreign ministry to increase engagement between the Centre and state governments is a welcome initiative.

Additionally, the government should establish a mechanism to involve state governments while determining foreign policies that could directly or indirectly impact them, calling for their inputs in key bilateral meetings and negotiations. Water sharing, illegal migration across borders, and trade, are some of the areas where state governments along India’s borders can play a concrete role in supporting New Delhi’s policies towards neighboring countries.

The eminence of SAARC in Modi’s foreign policy would receive considerable heft from some restructuring in the foreign ministry. One option might be the creation of a special committee on South Asia, led by the foreign secretary, and comprising the joint secretary for SAARC, joint secretaries of the bilateral relations within South Asia and joint secretary of the newly-created division for Center-State relations. Such a forum would allow SAARC-level regional strategy to work in concurrence with bilateral strategy and also coordinate with relevant state governments, thereby facilitating greater coordination between these various elements.


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This chapter is a part of Brookings India’s briefing book, “Reinvigorating SAARC: India’s Opportunities and Challenges.” To view the preface and table of contents, click here.


W.P.S. Sidhu is senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution. Sidhu’s research focuses on India’s role in the emerging global order; the role of the United Nations and regionalism; and confidence-building measures, disarmament, arms control, and non-proliferation issues.

Rohan Sandhu is research assistant at Brookings India, where he conducts research in the areas of international development and political economy – including education, democracy, poverty, and Indian foreign policy.