With SAARC breathing its last, India should look to the sub-region if it wants to be a decisive player in the South Asian region as well as on the world stage.

Even as regions became areas of concentrated focus for nation states since the end of the Second World War, this distinct geopolitical discourse symbolized regionalism as the change of a particular region from relative heterogeneity to increased homogeneity and marked it as a pervasive feature of international affairs. Historically, such regionalism has proved to be an effective device to serve primarily economic and commercial objectives and subsequently a variety of cooperative ventures of nation states.

South Asia, primarily comprising Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, and Nepal – is arguably one of the most dynamic regions in the world, yet remains one of the least integrated. According to the World Bank, intra-regional trade in South Asia accounts for less than 5 percent of total trade, compared to East Asia’s contribution at 35% and Europe at 60%. Some of the factors which have potentially hindered regional integration are, historical political tension, mistrust, cross-border conflicts, high trade cost, asymmetry in sizes of the countries, limited transport connectivity among others.

However, this does not insinuate that there have not been efforts at regional economic cooperation. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is the most visible manifestation of such cooperative efforts with India as one of the seven founding members of the organization. While SAARC has many achievements to its credit, it has encountered several difficulties too. These impediments are often political in nature and point to smaller neighbor’s preoccupation with the fear and retaliation vis-à-vis its much larger neighbor smeared by threat assessments. SAARC has not been able to implement its own resolution due to the lack of a strong political will, and consistent failure to overcome mental barriers of opposition and hostility. The inadequacy in regional cohesion reflected through the SAARC framework has serious consequences for India in particular, given its progressively widening strategic interest in not just South Asia but the wider Indo-Pacific region too.

Since the 1990s, India began reformulating its foreign policy goals in lieu of internal compulsions such as social tensions, political instability and external factors like the fall of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War. Subsequently, in India’s aspiration to become a major world power, it looked for a region where it could develop and strengthen political and trade relations. In this quest, lured by the economic achievements of the “East Asian model” and geographical proximity, New Delhi shifted its focus towards the rapidly growing economies of East and South East Asia, eventually leading to liberalization of the Indian economy. A focused approach to connect with a smaller set of countries in order to boost its own economy was a carefully thought out strategy that evinced New Delhi’s conviction in subregional approach.

To make headway into the Southeast Asian region, sub-regionalism has proved to be an effective tool for India to achieve its objectives. India has shown an active interest in subregional forums like Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Bangladesh China India Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM) and Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC). These forums have to some extent allowed India to bypass many of the hurdles which were responsible for the failure of SAARC and hold potential to be more expedient.  

BIMSTEC alleviates the smaller countries’ fear of India being a ‘bully’, due to India’s North East’s dependence on Bangladesh and Myanmar, which makes it a geographically coherent grouping with a better vantage point apropos regional balance of power, than SAARC.
BCIM provides India with opportunities to improve relations with China and ASEAN, exclude Pakistan and include countries which are on its eastern and south eastern boundaries. Specifically, for India and China sub regional cooperation provides a distinct avenue to lessen differences and work together. Cooperation in subregional forums, if not seen as a zero-sum game, implying that the gain of one member is not at the cost of another, effectively allows all members to gain. The MGC essentially emphasizes India’s connectivity based on cultural and civilizational similarities with the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), and in this era of socio-political interaction, there are strong opportunities for MGC to transform intra-regional interactions. Significantly, four GMS members are a part of ASEAN and, as such, positive developments with MCG members can effectively mean better relations with ASEAN.

Subregional cooperation has to be seen in the broader canvas, as a departure from a Euro-Atlantic led world order to Asia-centric world order, – a shift where India is poised for a prominent role. India’s early approach towards ‘Asian regionalism’  under Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Non-Aligned ideology, which was largely ideologically driven. As geopolitical circumstances changed dramatically, both in the region and outside, in the post-Cold War, ideology took a back seat and interests started governing decisions – among other things, this change promoted bilateralism over multilateralism. For instance, the economic liberalization and with it a focused ‘Look East’ (now Act East) were turning points in India’s foreign policy with its re-alignment with South East Asia. Arguably, India has overcome its earlier excessive concern with the West as interests have realigned, and as it looks beyond the South Asian region, subregional forums could allow it to use diplomacy to build relations with its immediate neighbors.

While security concerns are legitimate, neighbors should not be viewed only as a source of threat. India must recognize that smaller neighboring countries have their own concerns with India and employ a commensurate calculus. The greater the Indian focus is on building cooperative networks, the larger will be the prospect for reciprocal action from their side, producing a strengthened regional environment for trade and cooperation. India also has to recognize that bilateral and regional relations work in tandem. When the former works well, it allows wider actions in a subregional setting. However, if bilateral relations come under strain in any region, the subregional networks provide alternative avenues. Hence, India should turn towards adopting a focused subregional approach to lead its place on the regional as well as the global stage.

Image Credit: Prime Minister’s Office (GODL-India) [GODL-India], via Wikimedia Commons

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