Written by Amita Batra.

Bilateral relations between India and Pakistan have been conflict-ridden for a long time. The two countries have fought three major wars and one minor war since independence in 1947.

Not surprisingly, India-Pakistan relations dominate the South Asian landscape, with regional instability, to a large extent, being a reflection of the India-Pakistan tensions and conflict intensity. On many occasions the process of regional cooperation in South Asia has faltered owing to the adversarial relations between India and Pakistan. The recent rise in bilateral tensions after the attack by terrorists on an Indian army base camp in Uri in September 2016 was not very different as its first casualty was the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) process.

The 19th SAARC summit meeting that was to be held in Islamabad in November 2016 was suspended. In addition, measures to diplomatically isolate Pakistan and severance of economic ties were considered by the government of India for Pakistan’s alleged involvement in terrorism across the border. Economic instruments may not have been most effective in this context as conflict, both, actual and anticipated, has kept bilateral economic relations weak. Almost six years after making the announcement towards granting reciprocal MFN status, Pakistan has refrained from according India even the modified and politically more acceptable Non Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA). India-Pakistan bilateral trade remains low and below potential. However, efforts towards diplomatic isolation of Pakistan, particularly in the regional context, appear to have been more successful. India is leading the way and other smaller economies are not shying away from supporting India.

In fact, after the Uri attack, India’s announcement of its withdrawal from the 19th SAARC summit for reasons of heightened cross border terrorism, followed by similar announcements by Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, was probably the first instance ever of joint support from smaller economies for India’s stance in the region. This trend appears to have been further consolidated by the recent impetus to sub-regional cooperation among these countries.

Sub-regionalism sans Pakistan, which was only hinted at during the 18th SAARC summit, is now evolving as a concrete alternative in South Asia. While the SAARC continues to be encumbered by bilateral hostilities including India’s recent objections on procedural grounds to ratify selection of the new Secretary General from Pakistan, sub-regional groupings like the BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), are moving forward. The BBIN initiative is designed with the primary aim of facilitating trade, transit and connectivity in South Asia.

Member countries signed the MVA (motor vehicle agreement) to facilitate movement of personal, passenger and cargo vehicles across borders in June 2015. Trial runs for passenger vehicles and cargo trucks from Bangladesh to Delhi and from India’s Kolkata to its North East through Bangladesh driving in seamlessly through customs borders have been successfully undertaken in 2016.  India is now moving ahead with rail and air connectivity plans as well as proposals on cross border power trade policy and energy sector cooperation through joint ventures, all areas of interest and profit for member countries.

Expecting ratification by Bhutan soon, the BBIN MVA is a step towards the realisation of India’s vision for an integrated multi-modal transport system in the region. India’s proposed agreement towards this objective at the 18th   SAARC summit did not materialise owing to Pakistan’s last minute refusal to sign, citing lack of domestic preparation.

BIMSTEC, the other initiative, has Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar and Thailand as its members. BIMSTEC has its origins in India’s Look East policy and was formulated with the idea, among other things, to push for South Asian economic integration without Pakistan. It has been in existence for almost two decades but the performance outcomes have not been too encouraging. The attempt to revive the initiative as seen in the invitation to the BIMSTEC heads of state as part of outreach efforts of the BRICS summit held in October 2016 is therefore noteworthy. Nepal is the current chair and the next BIMSTEC summit is to be held in Kathmandu later this year. In the last meeting of senior officials held earlier this month, member countries tasked the eminent persons group to work out a vision roadmap as well as agreeing to expedite the FTA and signing of a MoU for a BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection.

Revival of the BIMSTEC can be hugely beneficial as, through its Southeast Asian members, it provides South Asia the opportunity to access the ASEAN Economic Community-a single market and globally competitive production base. The recently reported merger of the BIMSTEC with SAARC desk in the Ministry of External Affairs is another indication of the Indian government’s seriousness of intent in this context.

However, even as India succeeds in its attempts towards sub-regional cooperation with smaller economies in South Asia, Pakistan is not without support. China’s continuous protection of Pakistan against international pressure to designate the JeM chief as a global terrorist is a contributory factor to Pakistan’s confidence building. India’s proposals at the United Nations in this connection in December last year and more recently early this month even when backed by the US, UK and France, have been blocked by China. More fundamentally though, China, through its $46 billion investment commitment to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has provided Pakistan with a means to develop a sustainable growth path for its economy.

Two of Pakistan’s biggest constraints to sustained growth, finance and power shortage, are expected to be alleviated through the energy generation and infrastructure projects as part of the CPEC. In addition, these and other CPEC projects include possibilities of employment generation and business expansion in Pakistan. Put together, the CPEC has the potential to lend stability to the Pakistan economy. Security concerns and internal politics in Pakistan may act as stumbling blocks in the progress of the corridor, but it can also not be denied that the scope for economic restructuring that it entails may lend Pakistan the necessary confidence and economic strength to continue as a regional adversary to India.

To sum up, the diverse trends in regional cooperation as they evolve in South Asia are indicative of alternative configurations gaining ground as against the traditional SAARC process. How far they will be successful will to a large extent depend on India’s ability to steer the neighbourhood favourably in the direction of its vision for regional cooperation in South Asia.

Amita Batra is a Professor of Economics at the Centre for South Asian Studies in the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Image credit: CC by KKoshy/Flickr.

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