Here are a few points from the recent history of Pakistan-India relations to ponder over for those in Pakistan who wax eloquent about the potential of SAARC. A few months ago, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited New Delhi to attend the swearing in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the latter’s invitation. Contrary to the expectations of the optimists in Islamabad, there was no agreement on the resumption of a structured dialogue between the two countries. Instead, Pakistan was told, in the words of the Indian foreign secretary, to “abide by its commitment to prevent its territory and the territory under its control from being used for terrorism against India.” As for bilateral dialogue, the foreign secretaries of Pakistan and India were merely asked to discuss its resumption. Even the meeting of the foreign secretaries, which was to take place towards the end of August, was cancelled by India on the flimsy ground of our High Commissioner’s meeting with the Kashmiri leaders. It is interesting to note that such meetings had not previously attracted any objection from the Indian side. It seemed that India had blocked the bilateral dialogue process unless Pakistan followed the dictated line on the issues of Kashmir and terrorism.

The hardening Indian attitude under the Modi-led BJP government was further reflected in the heavy Indian shelling across the Line of Control and the Working Boundary in October. While this was primarily the result of the extremist character of the BJP and the bigotry of its ally, the RSS, the possibility cannot be ruled out that India may have been encouraged to adopt this hardline approach by Modi’s successful visit to Washington a few days earlier. It is worth recalling that the joint statement issued after Modi’s talks with President Obama in Washington a few days earlier mentioned that the two sides had agreed to take “joint and concerted efforts” to dismantle terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and the Haqqani group.

Even if one ignores the extremism and bigotry of BJP and RSS, the long-term prospects of Pakistan-India relations will remain fraught with tensions and strains because of India’s hegemonic designs in the region and unresolved disputes like Kashmir and Siachin. There is now growing recognition in the international community that India wishes to establish its domination and exercise a veto power over the actions of other states in South Asia. The acceptance of India’s hegemony would gradually reduce Pakistan to the status of the former’s satellite. It goes without saying that Pakistan’s India policy must be anchored in a realistic assessment of New Delhi’s long-term strategic goals in the region.

It is against the background of the foregoing that Pakistan’s leaders, senior officials, and opinion makers must carry out a realistic appraisal of the potential benefits and costs of the deepening of the regional economic integration within the framework of SAARC. To start with, SAARC lacks many of the prerequisites for the successful evolution of a regional economic cooperation organization on the lines of the EU. Those prerequisites are: community of interests or a shared vision of the future, economic complementarities, geographical proximity, cultural affinities or a feeling of common identity, absence of serious disputes, and non-existence of hegemonic designs among the member states. Barring the requirement of geographical proximity, SAARC does not fulfill any of the conditions which are necessary for its successful evolution on the lines of EU and for enabling its member states to reap fully the benefits of regional cooperation. To elaborate this point further, it bears reiteration that Pakistan was created because of the cultural divide rather than cultural affinities between the Hindus and the Muslims. The continued disputes and tensions between Pakistan and India and the latter’s hegemonic designs are other obstacles in the way of the regional economic integration within the framework of SAARC. The wide divergences in the political, cultural and strategic outlook of India and Pakistan betray the absence of the community of interests or a shared vision of the future within SAARC.

It is for these fundamental reasons, which are likely to persist in the foreseeable future, that SAARC has failed to make much progress since its establishment about thirty years ago. The intra-regional trade remains at the low level of 5% of the total trade of the SAARC member states. Even the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) consisting of Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, five Central Asian Republics and Azerbaijan, despite the deplorable official neglect, currently has a higher intra-regional trade level of 10% of the member states’ total trade. The shortcomings and the genetic defects from which SAARC suffers have prevented the various schemes and projects for regional cooperation in different sectors from taking off. Given these ground realities, it is unrealistic to expect that SAARC has any chance in the foreseeable future of reaching the goal of a Common Economic and Monetary Union, which the latest SAARC Declaration issued after the Kathmandu Summit would like to achieve after going through the evolutionary phases of a Free Trade Area, a Customs Union, and a Common Market.

To set such goals in a region where two of its biggest members (India and Pakistan) consider each other as the arch enemy and are sometimes not even on speaking terms is incredible to the extent of being foolhardy. For Pakistan, to go along with such goals is outright dangerous if one takes into account the logical consequences of the establishment of a Common Economic and Monetary Union in South Asia. A South Asian Economic and Monetary Union would result in the domination of India over the economic and monetary policies of the SAARC member states including Pakistan somewhat as Germany has emerged as the ultimate arbiter of the EU economic and monetary policies. Only in the case of SAARC, India’s influence would be much greater because of its much greater economic weight within the organization. If that happens, Pakistan would lose its economic and monetary independence and thereby its ability to formulate its economic and monetary policies in its own best interests. Further, a South Asian Economic and Monetary Union would effectively mean that Pakistan would ultimately become a part of the South Asian Confederation since the economic and monetary policies have close links with political and security policies. This should be unacceptable to a Pakistan which was established in recognition of the vast cultural, political and religious divide between the Muslims and the Hindus of the sub-continent. A South Asian Economic and Monetary Union in effect would nullify the raison d’etre of Pakistan.

Thus, while SAARC can play a useful role for promoting cooperation among the member states in specific sectors, such as trade, energy, river water management, environment, health, etc. on a mutually beneficial basis, it is not the regional organization of choice for Pakistan for establishing a regional economic and monetary union. For that purpose, Pakistan should look westward and pursue this goal within the framework of the ECO which fulfills all the essential conditions for regional economic integration on the lines of EU. It is a shame, therefore, that our delegation to the recent SAARC Summit gave its acceptance of the goal of a South Asian Economic and Monetary Union without any reservations. We do need peace with India and we do need to engage it in dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation. But this should not be at the cost of our national independence, sovereignty, and economic autonomy.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs. He can be contacted at javid.husain@gmail.com