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India, Pakistan Push for New Sub-SAARC Groupings

Zakka Jacob | CNN-News18

First published: October 12, 2016, 2:34 PM IST | Updated: October 12, 2016
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India, Pakistan Push for New Sub-SAARC Groupings
Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan have joined India in the boycott of the 19th SAARC Summit in Pakistan. (PHOTO: REUTERS)

After the failure of Pakistan to host the 19th SAARC summit in Islamabad on the 9th and 10 of November, CNN News 18 now learns that both India and Pakistan are pushing for sub-SAARC regional arrangements. India has been long championing the BIMSTEC grouping, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. Later this week, India will be hosting a summit of BIMSTEC countries on the sidelines of the BRICS summit. BIMSTEC includes Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal.

In the last SAARC Summit in Kathmandu in 2014, India had been actively promoting a regional motor vehicles arrangement. Pakistan had become a singular stumbling block. Nonetheless, India went ahead and pushed for the sub-regional BBIN arrangement, which involves Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. This motor vehicles agreement is already in place and now you can drive through all the way from Dhaka through Thimphu down to Kathmandu ending in Delhi. All of this without the hassle of getting separate travel permits from each of these countries.

Now CNN News 18 learns that Pakistan is also pushing for a new SAARC given the evolving geo politics in Central Asia. Pakistani envoys who were sent by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to lobby for the Kashmir cause were told to impress upon different global leaders the need for a new arrangement in South Asia. Pakistan is already sitting pretty with the CPEC or the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Pakistan now wants to include other countries in this regional arrangement. It is hoping to get Iran, Afghanistan and the five Central Asian states on board. A few weeks ago when Nawaz Sharif met Hasan Rouhani, the Iranian President in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA, the Iranian President had reportedly expressed a desire to be a part of CPEC.

If Iran were to throw its hat into the CPEC ring, then it would be a big blow to India. New Delhi has been pitching for the Chabahar port in Iran for many years now. Recently Prime Minister Modi on his recent visit to Iran had laid the foundation stone for the project. Chabahar is barely 70 kilometers away from Gwadar, which is the final destination port in the CPEC project. If Iran is also willing to throw its weight behind CPEC it seriously undermines India’s interests and stakes in that region. Chabahar was supposed to be India’s gateway to land-locked Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia.

But how feasible is this idea floated by Pakistan. A senior MEA official speaking on the condition of anonymity debunks Pakistan’s plans as ‘high hopes’. “Pakistan’s stock is so low now, it’s credibility has taken a huge beating because of using terror, it is isolated globally and regionally, how will they manage to convince Afghanistan and Iran, which have their own issues with Islamabad to become a part of this idea.”

This sub-regional shadow boxing also holds a mirror up to the failure of SAARC as an institution for the last 30 years. When it was devised back in the early eighties, Rajiv Gandhi who was one of the chief architects, wanted this grouping to eventually to become like the European Union, with its own currency, free trade and open borders. Unfortunately, SAARC has been held hostage to tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad from time to time. If SAARC is comatose and is expected to die a natural death in the next few years, then that is squarely on both India and Pakistan and the failure of imagination of its political leaderships.

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