Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his speech in Dubai: “We are strengthening connectivity in SAARC. Some have tried to block talks. But rest of SAARC will move ahead — India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh have signed a pact for building connectivity (BBIN). A new life has been infused in SAARC which was earlier a forum for sparring and efforts to corner India.”
2015 marks the 30th year of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. In its 30th year, the EU made the treaty for a single market. When Asean was 30 years old in 1997, intraregional trade was 21% of its global trade. With a cumulative GDP of 9.12% of the world and 21% of the global population, SAARC also has enormous potential for economic integration.
But the Indo-Pak geopolitical conflict has long overshadowed collective socioeconomic welfare in South Asia. Even in the last SAARC summit held in Nepal, leaders failed to reach agreements on vehicular traffic and railways connectivity due to Pakistan’s scepticism.
Since November 2014, India has changed track and resorted to promoting connectivity in the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) sub-region, the second best choice for the grand vision of a road network connecting Dhaka to Kabul, as the Mughals had 400 years back. In terms of land connectivity, BBIN is simply SAARC minus Pakistan. Countries that can work out connectivity solutions cannot wait indefinitely for dilly-dallying neighbours.
The landmark BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement was signed on June 15, 2015, soon after Modi’s political endorsement during his visit to Bangladesh. With 18% of the world population and 6.3% of global GDP, BBIN offers great opportunities of synergistic economic gains through seamless mobility of goods and people.
The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, also known as the Southern Silk Road, is another sub-regional initiative that links South and East Asia. Through integrating the four economies that contribute 16.7% of global GDP and comprise 40% of global population, BCIM EC will not only act as a transit corridor facilitating transport and people to people contact but also enhance multilateral trade and investment, joint ventures on energy and natural resources, and development of special economic zones.
SAARC’s greatest weakness is the lack of trust between India and Pakistan, which is absent in BBIN and BCIM so agreements are easier to reach. Presence of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Silk Road Fund and also South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation programme, which includes Sri Lanka and Maldives in addition to the BBIN countries, promise greater access to finance for investing in BCIM and BBIN respectively.
A foot-dragging SAARC is losing relevance. Hence, in spite of Modi’s positive reference to it, the reality is that as sub-regional initiatives within SAARC (like BBIN) and independent regional
initiatives (like BCIM) gain momentum, in the absence of countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, the grand vision of SAARC as a regional powerhouse is becoming obsolete.
The writer, Mr. Syed Munir Khasru is Chairman of a Bangladesh based international think tank – the Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG).