The SAARC Summit showed once again how the entire region remains hostage to the relationship between its two largest members, India and Pakistan. The entire summit was in danger of being thought of as a failure if their Prime Ministers did not meet on its sidelines. That this is the case, while the UN General Assembly was not accounted a failure merely because the US President did not meet his Soviet counterpart, also reminds us that SAARC was founded 29 years ago to lower Indo-Pak tensions at the inaugural summit in Dhaka in 1985, to mitigate regional tensions by providing a forum for Pakistan to meet India.

At this time, Pakistan’s President was Zia ul Haq and India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, but in the lead up to the summit, and the formation of the regional grouping, the Indian Prime Minister was Morarji Desai, and his Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. India was concerned to make sure that SAARC did not become a forum for the revival of security disputes. India saw SAARC as a forum where it would increase its trade in the region. At the bottom, though, SAARC was a sort of subset of the Commonwealth, comprising all those countries which had been British colonies. Three members, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, were actually the successor states of the British colony of India, which had resulted from the Partition of India in 1947, then the secession of East Pakistan in 1971.

SAARC represents the EU approach to South Asia, as a body which will increase intraregional trade to the point where there will be a drive for political unity. It should not be forgotten that SAARC was created at the time when the USSR invaded Afghanistan. Though it was specifically not a security arrangement, with India and Bangladesh having security arrangements with the USSR, this was a factor at the time. Matters have evolved so far that Afghanistan has joined SAARC, this time while under American occupation. Afghanistan is the only SAARC member not to have been a British colony, though the British took a great interest in its affairs. It was the sole kingdom in the north-west, corresponding to the kingdoms in the north-east, Nepal and Bhutan, which were also founding SAARC members. The US not only got Afghanistan included, but itself became an observer in SAARC, thus ensuring that it would be present there, and in the region.

China is not just an observer, but an applicant for membership. However, SAARC would probably expand further by the grant of membership to Myanmar, which is presently the only ex-British colony in South Asia not to be a SAARC member. It seems more focused on its ASEAN membership. However, it cannot escape its destiny as a country on the border of South and South-East Asia. China’s inclusion would upset India greatly, because not only is it a friend of Pakistan’s, but also a regional rival of India’s. China has also got its own Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which includes Russia, which is absent from SAARC, even as an applicant for observer status. China is busy establishing frameworks for its expected superpower as one of the BRICS, and only just established a joint bank headquartered in Shanghai.

SAARC is thus evolving along with its members. It has become more important in a world less focused on security relationships. Instead of the old security alliances, such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact, economic structures are being put in place. The EU is considered the best example, though it should be noted that it is underwritten by NATO. It should also be noted that the US is not formally part of the EU, though it is the most important member of NATO. SAARC is not just interesting as an economic organization without any security organization, but one in which the two largest members are actually the ones who are threats to each other’s security. The EU is perhaps the nearest example, as it is jointly driven by France and Germany, which had been such strong rivals that they fought three wars against each other including two World Wars between 1870 and 1945. The similarities are strong, right down to their territorial dispute over Alsace-Lorraine which parallels that between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Yet, they came together as members of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, and in turn this led them to form the EU (then European Economic Community) in 1958. However, in the case of SAARC, there are two caveats. First, there is no common product (like steel) which will force the two together. Second, neither has been defeated, as both France and Germany were after World War II (France by Germany in 1940, and then Germany by the Allies, with the US leading the charge). Is anyone proposing a nuclear war between the two just to make SAARC work?

However, even though Bangladesh has a large population, SAARC is dominated by India and Pakistan in a way that France and Germany did not dominate the EU. However, the role of the US must not be discounted. Just as much as it used the EU in its face-off against the USSR, it would like SAARC to develop into a rival of China’s. Pakistan here is caught in a cleft stick. While it would like to back China, it would also like to stay on the right side of the US, however, with the relative decline of the US. It appears to be opportune to be on the side of the great power that is emerging, especially when it will rival India.

Pakistan must take a holistic and realistic approach. That entails a lowering of expectations. However, until they are lowered, or until they become more multilateral, there will always be pressure on Pakistani leaders to meet the Indian Prime Minister. It is perhaps symbolic that Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif has had to repeat the dilemma of President Pervez Musharraf, whose need to engage Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was so extreme that he thrust his hand in front of him at the 2002 Summit after his own speech. This was their first encounter after their Agra Summit had failed to produce results that summer. Perhaps Modi expected a replay of how a BJP PM was to be treated by the Pakistani ruler. The meetings between Manmohan Singh (of the Congress) and Yousaf Reza Gilani (of the PPP) were cordial, including at the 2011 SAARC Summit in the Maldives. However, the meeting between Modi and Nawaz in Kathmandu showed that any bonhomie created by Mian Nawaz going to attend Mr Modi’s swearing-in, if any, was long past.

It should be noted that this entire episode took place at a time when border tensions were reduced but not eliminated after having been heightened, and it was hoped that a meeting would further lower them. The whole episode was another illustration of how Pakistan cannot rely on any multilateral organization to realize its national goals. It cannot hope to be rewarded for good behaviour in the current international system. It can only hope for a change within it, to meet its people’s aspirations.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation