New Delhi: After consciously ignoring the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for nearly four years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sprang a diplomatic surprise Friday by reaching out to the eight-nation grouping and urging its leaders to come together to fight the coronavirus outbreak.
“I would like to propose that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight Coronavirus. We could discuss, via video conferencing, ways to keep our citizens healthy. Together, we can set an example to the world, and contribute to a healthier planet,” the PM tweeted in the morning.
I would like to propose that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight Coronavirus.
We could discuss, via video conferencing, ways to keep our citizens healthy.
Together, we can set an example to the world, and contribute to a healthier planet.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 13, 2020
The move comes at a time India has registered its first death from coronavirus and its total cases have climbed to 81, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
India has so far avoided a mass outbreak of coronavius cases in the country, but seen a steady rise in numbers in the last 10 days. To stem the tide, the government has put in place strict travel regulations. The Ministry of External Affairs also organised a briefing for the heads of missions based in India to apprise them of the steps taken to counter the threat of coronavirus.
The last SAARC Summit was held on 26-27 November in 2014 in Kathmandu. The next summit, which was scheduled to take place in November 2016 in Islamabad, was postponed amid tensions between India and Pakistan over the attack on a military camp in Uri.
India maintained it will not be able to move on SAARC unless Pakistan stopped cross-border terrorism — a demand it still maintains. As a result, the next SAARC Summit was never organised and the Narendra Modi government has focused more on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) as a part of its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and ‘Act East’ policy.
According to diplomatic sources, Modi is likely to have taken this step now keeping in mind the fact that New Delhi will be hosting the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit later this year, for which it intends to invited Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“This is surely a change in stance. After Uri, the focus was on BIMSTEC. This is a beginning. This was needed to happen before India hosts SCO. Pakistan should now show some degree of flexibility. If this will be seen as Pakistan being flexible (on) Kashmir, that remains to be seen,” said Sharat Sabharwal, former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan.
Pakistan has hinted it will not shy away from cooperating with India in addressing the challenges posed by the deadly COVID-19.
According to Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson Aisha Farooqui, “Government of Pakistan is monitoring the situation very closely and will take measures required for the citizens within Pakistan and any assistance we can provide to our neighbouring countries.”
However, Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary, said after Modi’s proposal, the “ball is in Pakistan’s court” now.
“Prime Minister Modi has taken the initiative now before the situation on coronavirus becomes alarming. But for Pakistan it won’t be easy to give up the Kashmir issue and say yes to this,” he said.
According to veteran diplomat Rajiv Bhatia, New Delhi has been monitoring what neighbouring countries have been telling it in terms of making a move in SAARC.
“Pakistan should also see this as an opportunity as they want SAARC as well as SCO to move on. This is time for others such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, who were strongly advocating for SAARC to make the move now. The onus is now on all the SAARC leaders to make it successful,” said Bhatia, Distinguished Fellow at Gateway House.
SAARC nations respond
Within hours of Modi proposing the initiative, several SAARC leaders, including Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, hailed the move and accepted the proposal.
“Thank you for the great initiative Shri @narendramodi – #LKA is ready to join the discussion & share our learnings & best practices and to learn from other #SAARC members. Let’s unite in solidarity during these trying times and keep our citizens safe,” Gotabaya tweeted.
PM Tshering posted: “This is what we call leadership. As members of this region, we must come together in such times.”
This is what we call leadership. As members of this region, we must come together in such times. Smaller economies are hit harder, so we must coordinate. With your leadership, I have no doubt we will see immediate and impactful outcome. Looking forward to the video conference. https://t.co/2RnokAJQOs
— PM Bhutan (@PMBhutan) March 13, 2020
Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli also hailed the move and said his country will cooperate.
I welcome the idea advanced by Prime Minister Modiji @narendramodi for chalking out a strong strategy by the leadership of the SAARC nations to fight Coronavirus. My government is ready to work closely with SAARC Member States to protect our citizens from this deadly disease.
— KP Sharma Oli (@PM_Nepal) March 13, 2020
“Thank you PM @narendramodi for taking the initiative on this important endeavor. Covid 19 requires collective effort to defeat it. Maldives welcomes this proposal and would fully support such a regional effort (sic),” said President of Maldives Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.
Welcoming the proposal, Bangladesh said it would “look forward to a constructive dialogue”.
“HPM Sheikh Hasina welcomes the proposal and look forward to a constructive dialogue with @narendramodi @ibusolih @PM_Nepal @PMBhutan @GotabayaR n others HOSs/HOGs who already consented to discuss way forward at this testing time for the region and the world,” Bangladesh Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Mohammad Shahriar Alam tweeted.
HPM Sheikh Hasina welcomes the proposal and look forward to a constructive dialogue with @narendramodi @ibusolih @PM_Nepal @PMBhutan @GotabayaR n others HOSs/HOGs who already consented to discuss way forward at this testing time for the region and the world. https://t.co/62Jl506UsI
— Md. Shahriar Alam (@MdShahriarAlam) March 13, 2020
Afghanistan and Pakistan are yet to respond.