This week New Delhi has proposed a joint Covid-19 emergency fund to revive the neglected South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), amid concerns about the pandemic as well as fears of China’s growing influence.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed setting up a ‘SAARC Covid-19 Emergency Fund’ and pledged to contribute $10 million toward it, during a teleconference this Sunday with the leaders of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
The initiative is the brainchild of Modi himself, and suggests that India is serious about coping with the contagion at a time when some Western media outlets have insinuated that it may fail to contain the deadly virus. It is worth bearing in mind that India has an open border with Nepal and a porous one with Bangladesh, which may explain Modi’s eagerness to help out the neighbors.
Pandemic and geopolitics
However, this outreach has a lot to do with South Asia’s geopolitics as well. Beijing has been quite successful in increasing its penetration in the region, creating a major concern for New Delhi.
That may help explain why Modi is suddenly eager to revive SAARC, which India has largely ignored for the last four years. The last summit was held in Kathmandu in 2014, with the next one scheduled for 2016 in Islamabad. Nevertheless, India decided to boycott the summit due to tensions with Pakistan after the terrorist attack on a military camp in Uri, situated in the province of Jammu and Kashmir. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bhutan and the Maldives also decided to give the summit a miss, forcing the host Pakistan to postpone it – indefinitely, as it turned out.
Since then, India has been encouraging the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) as an alternative, sidelining Pakistan. Nepal and Sri Lanka have made calls to revive the SAARC, and with Chinese influence growing in Afghanistan and the Maldives, New Delhi seems to have decided something has to be done.
Courting the neighbors
Take the case of the Maldives. India has always had good strategic relations with the Indian Ocean island nation, but they soured during the government of Abdullah Yameen, which drifted closer to Beijing. Modi did not bother visiting the country until Yameen was voted out of office, but made the trip to the inauguration of his successor Ibrahim Solih, in November 2018, his first official visit after winning re-election.
On the Afghanistan front, Modi has made it clear that India supports President Ashraf Ghani, whose legitimacy has been challenged by Abdullah Abdullah even as the government in Kabul prepares for the tough task of negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban while US forces plan their retreat.
Reviving SAARC was one of the most discussed issues during the visit of Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksha to India in February. Colombo reportedly even alerted New Delhi that in absence of SAARC, China will be emerging as its major development partner in the region. Sri Lanka has been growing closer to Beijing in recent years, even leasing the port of Hambantota to the Chinese against Indian objections. India’s allies such as Bangladesh and Nepal have also been improving relations with China.
India’s domestic politics – notably the new law granting expedited citizenship to Non-Muslim minorities of Pakistan Bangladesh & Afghanistan – have caused some friction with neighboring countries as well. Modi’s plan to allay Bangladesh’s concerns relied on visiting Dhaka later this month to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mujibar Rehman, the founder of Bangladesh and the father of current PM Sheikh Hasina. That visit has been canceled due to the outbreak of Covid-19, however.
Problem with Pakistan
Reviving the SAARC will not be an easy task, though. Represented at the teleconference by the special health assistant of PM Imran Khan, Pakistan raised the issue of Kashmir – a perpetual bone of contention between Islamabad and New Delhi.
Dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and countering China’s strengthening influence in South Asia are both important strategic objectives for India. Whether Modi succeeds in addressing it through reviving the SAARC remains to be seen.