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Death knell of SAARC? BIMSTEC most favoured regional grouping

Published: 27th September 2016 09:22 PM  |   Last Updated: 28th September 2016 04:03 AM   |  A+A-

NEW DELHI: By officially pulling out of the SAARC summit scheduled in Islamabad, New Delhi on Tuesday wrote an obituary for the regional bloc that has outlived its relevance. In the face of peevish Pakistan holding SAARC hostage by blocking all development projects, BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) has emerged as the most favoured regional grouping and India has decided to work bilaterally or trilaterally with Afghanistan.

Along with India three other member states Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh will also not be attending the Summit.

Earlier India had refrained from official announcement on whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi would attend the summit for the heads of states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). But with this becoming clear that Modi will not travel to Islamabad this could be a death knell for the regional bloc.

Member countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka are now working towards a more connected and integrated South Asia with visa free people and vehicle movement; and by making energy grids. Only one country will be left behind and that seems to be Pakistan.

In 2014, Pakistan had blocked a common Motor Vehicle Agreement for the SAARC countries to facilitate free transport movement in the region. But on August 28, as Islamabad was busy ratcheting up Kashmir issue, a cargo truck loaded with Garments started for India as part of trial run under the Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA).  “For long the region’s potential has been curtailed due to one spiteful country, this showcase agreement has been long overdue,” said a senior diplomat.

Over next five years, 30 road projects will be constructed at a cost of $8 billion with technical assistance from the Asian Development Bank. A proposal is there to extend the project to other three members of the BIMSTEC namely – Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand.

The South Asian region has been the least interconnected region in the world with internal trade amounting for only 5 percent of the total trade of the countries. India is also helping Afghanistan to construct rail and road tracks to get it accessibility to Chahbahar Port to reduce its dependence on Pakistan for trade. Most recently Pakistan has been dragging its feet to provide transit rights to India to export wheat required by Afghanistan, despite the “humanitarian” nature of the requirement.

“Afghanistan is now member of WTO (World Trade Organisation) and as such has rights including transit rights and other countries has corresponding obligation to provide transit rights. We all know that the concerned country also a WTO member does not have much respect for global rules whether it is trade in ordinary products or nuclear proliferation. The bottom line is Afghanistan’s right to access has been seriously infringed,” the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson Vikas Swarup said.

On Afghanistan, India has formed India-Afghanistan-Iran trilateral to provide Afghanistan access to Central Asian market and explore alternate trade routes and is working in the India-US-Afghanistan trilateral for building military capability of the country.

This year a proposal for a single visa for the BIMSTEC countries on the lines of Europe’s Schengen visa was mooted. Negotiations are on for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between these countries that will cover 1.6 billion people with a total GDP of $ 3 trillion.

Pakistan has backed out of the SAARC satellite proposed by India that will provide range of services to all neighbours in the areas of telecommunications and broadcasting applications and disaster management. But enthusiasm on part of other countries, especially Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal; means the ISRO-developed satellite is likely to be launched by the end of the year.

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