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Defence and Military Cooperation: Mission Impossible?

Brookings India Briefing Book

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Prima facie the prospect of defense and military cooperation between SAARC countries would appear to be beyond the realm of possibility given their conflictual relations. Indeed, apart from the well-known India-Pakistan hostilities, there have been similar confrontations between Afghanistan-Pakistan, India-Bangladesh, and even Nepal-Bhutan.

Yet, the potential for military cooperation is conceivable in three scenarios: first, under United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations in non-SAARC countries; second, operations against non-state actors, particularly militant groups; and third, relief and rescue operations in the wake of natural disasters. In this context, SAARC as a regional body can play a collective and cooperative role.

Consider the following: SAARC currently contributes around 35 per cent of all UN peacekeeping troops – the single largest contribution made by any region. Thus, the formation of a body under SAARC to coordinate policies, troop contributions and joint training for UN peacekeeping is not out of the question. Similarly, SAARC currently has a counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing unit, and therefore, proposing such a unit for UN peacekeeping should not raise objections among member nations. Individually, SAARC countries have made impressive contributions to UN peacekeeping missions, with Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and Nepal leading contributions of troops and police personnel. The benefits of such a cooperative body could include joint training exercises between member nations, as well as the sharing of expertise and intelligence for peacekeeping.

Having a joint body under SAARC for UN peacekeeping would also strengthen the region’s position on the global stage in the dust-up between Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) and the countries funding peacekeeping operations. This joint body might give a greater voice to SAARC troop contributing countries in decision-making related to UN peacekeeping operations – be it to determine operational and logistics issues, or to develop a UN mandate on peacekeeping, or to make key appointments to head peacekeeping operations. Currently, these decision making powers rest with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and other countries who are the main financial contributors to peacekeeping operations. Presently there is an imbalance between the developing nations which provide the most number of troops and the finance-contributing nations. Thus, a collaborative SAARC effort would go a long way in adding some weight in determining the UN peacekeeping agenda.

Along with UN peacekeeping, SAARC should also explore the possibility to develop special task forces to tackle challenges, such as piracy, posed by non-state actors. Currently, countries such as India and Pakistan have made individual efforts in dealing with the threat of piracy. However, a joint effort with other SAARC maritime nations would once again strengthen the region’s ability to deal with such issues at the operational and institutional level. Similarly, at the request of a SAARC member nation, assistance can be provided collectively to tackle internal security threats.

Defense and military cooperation could also play a role in cross-border natural disaster management and mitigation in affected SAARC countries. The bilateral offer by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his Pakistani counterpart following the recent floods in Kashmir is indicative of the kind of cooperation possible between SAARC countries to tackle natural disasters.

The SAARC Disaster Management Center set up in 2006 was an important step in facilitating capacity building services as well as providing policy advice for SAARC nations in mitigating the impact of natural disasters. Training exercises for troops from SAARC nations on disaster management could be valuable in joint search and rescue missions, and relief efforts. The Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the 2006 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the 2014 Kashmir floods were instances where a joint military effort by SAARC nations would have aided relief operations.

A collaborative SAARC effort on defense and military cooperation can prove to be beneficial to SAARC member nations, as well as to the region as a whole. Strengthening SAARC on the global platform would increasingly benefit each individual country’s stance on key issues related to global threats and security.

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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.

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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. 

Shruti Gakhar is research assistant at Brookings India, where she supports Senior Fellows with research in various policy areas including economics, foreign policy, urbanization and education.

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