Murari Sharma: Disappointing G20 Declaration

The G-20 summit has ended in Buenos Aires with a 31-point declaration called building consensus for fair and sustainable development. I am disappointed with the document, which has more posturing than an effort to find practical solutions to global and regional problems.   

Except a few, other points in the statement are a rehash of the previous summit outcomes. The most notable exception is the justification provided by the US for its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and for the use of the energy sources for growth that have been deemed seriously harmful to the environment. I do not understand why other countries agreed to the point at all.

The other exception is the intention to reform the World Trade Organization. While every organization should be reviewed periodically so it would remain relevant and useful to changing requirements, this time the US seems motivated to to bend the rule-book in its favor and tear it if it cannot do so, not to strengthen the rule-based global trade. Yet another exception, some of the points in the statement are outright contradictory. For example, sustainable development and use of highly polluting and finite energy sources. 

These exceptions appear in the declaration more as the yawning cracks and gaps between the member states and less as promise to make concerted and serious efforts to find global consensus to tackle global and regional problems. 

Even in normal times, policies agreed at summit of 20 most important economies on earth seldom see the light of day in implementation due to wide differences existing between groups of members states and between individual countries within the groups themselves.

This time, the situation was not normal. According to some reports, even the US delegates did not know what position President Trump would take on critical issues when they flew to the Argentine capital. So there is no basis to believe that polices made on the fly will produce positive results for humanity. 

However, multilateral summits should be judged not only on what comes out in their statements but also what transpires among key members in the bilateral meetings on the side.  This time, the most consequential of bilateral meetings took place  between President Trump and President Xi in which Trump agreed to hold additional fire of extra tariff on Chinese products for 90 days and Xi agreed to further open the Chinese market to American products.

Let us hope the two countries will agree on a deal within that period and save the world from an ugly trade war in which not only these two countries but also the rest of the world will suffer.  

The meetings between Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May, between the British prime minister and Japanese Prime Minister Abe, and between French President Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salim were widely reported in the United Kingdom.

May defended her deal with the European Union, which will be voted on in 9 days from now and which is likely to fail. Abe warned May not to crash out of the EU. And Macron chastised Salim over the murder of Jamal Khassoggi, a Saudi national and The Washington Post contributor, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. None of them much consequential.  Trump and May, whose countries are number one and two arms suppliers to the kingdom, were loud in their silence on the issue of murder with the Saudi crown prince.  

That said, the issuance of the G20 declaration in itself is quite positive.  Trump had torpedoed the statement of the G7 summit in Canada early this year. Therefore, not many people, including me, had expected this statement. The Trump administration seems to have agreed to put up a nice face this time to insert its own problematic points.    

However, we need more than a nice face  and a few contradictory paragraphs in the declaration to grapple  with the world’s numerous nagging issues and perilous problems. If other leaders tried to convince Trump to not abandon the US role in global matters, I did not see it in the declaration. Neither did I see the engagement of other world leaders while G20 members were drawing the lines of global fortunes in Buenos Aires.

For instance, the leaders of several Asia-Pacific countries, including Nepali leaders, were busy getting blessings from the high priests of terribly defamed organization in Kathmandu rather paying attention to G20 meeting and its outcome. That is a pity.  


Murari Sharma: Teresa May Deserves Some Appreciation

British politics is in grave turmoil. Prime Ministers Teresa May’s foes and opponents have opposed tooth and nail the draft agreement she has negotiated to pull Britain out of the European Union. While her foes — Brexit hawks — made the mess and wimped out, May is left to clean the rubbish behind them while the opposition — Labor, Scottish Nationalist Party, and others — understandably is at its own game.   

If a political party wants to self-destruct, ask David Cameroon, May’s predecessor, how to do it. To placate the Eurosceptic in Conservative Party, Cameroon called the referendum on British membership of the European Union in 2016, and the British voters voted to leave the EU.

Cameroon’s side lost and he stepped aside, paving the path for May to occupy 10 Downing Street. May has spent most of her time balancing the Eurosceptic and Europhiles within Conservative Party. The current political turmoil is the climax of the conflict between the feuding factions that may split and destroy the party. 

Let me focus here on May’s foes. They peddled the fantasy that Britain outside the EU will have milk and honey without paying any price. But the EU stood for its continued integrity. As soon as the Brexit hawks understood that their fantasy was just that, they abandoned May’s ship.  

First to leave was David Davis, a Brexit hawk and the first Brexit secretary of state. In his negotiations with the EU, Davis realized that the lies and fantasy Brexiters had campaigned on were just that. So he resigned citing the Chequers understanding based on what the EU could agree.

Next was Boris Johnson, the hawks’ leader and the first foreign secretary in the May government. He had said Britain could have a cake and eat it. He chickened out, citing the same understanding, rather than trying to negotiate a better deal from the EU. As mayor of London, he had done a decent job but as foreign secretary, he proved only a wrecker-in-chief. 

Davis’s successor, Dominic Raab, also quit when the going got tough as I see it. In the very first rounds of negotiation, Rabb’s abrasive approach and uncompromising position hit the wall with EU and May took charge of the negotiations to move the process forward, which was a slap on Raab’s face.  

Crafted in these circumstances, May’s agreement is not ideal but it is what was possible given the UK’s weak position in the negotiation. To run for the door, Raab has used it. Other Brexiters have done the same, isolating and attacking May. 

As I have said before, May has made her share of the mistakes on two counts. First, she took charge of negotiations from Raab when he failed to make any headway. She should have made him fully responsible, pinned the failure on him, and then only taken charge of it. Second, she never told the public that Davis, Johnson, and Raab resigned because they could not deliver. She should have said it.

As every student of dance and diplomacy understands, it takes two tango.  Crucially, you get in the negotiation is not what you want but what the other side is willing to give you.  In the EU-Britain negotiation, three things have worked against Britain.  

First was the relative power. The EU economy is seven times larger than the British economy is. Collectively, 27 EU members are a greater military power than the United Kingdom. Besides, the UK was leaving the union, not the EU. Owing to these reasons, the UK’s negotiating position was weaker than that of the EU. 

Second, the EU was not ready to wreck the union. In the run-up to the referendum in 2016, Brexit hawks had promised to pull Britain out of the EU, the European Court of Justice, and the Customs Union and curtail the freedom of movement of people while enjoying the freedoms related to goods, service, and capital at no cost.  But the EU was not prepared to compromise on its four pillars — Freedoms of movement of people, goods, services, and capital.

Third, Brexit hawks forgot the Good Friday Agreement under which the British government had promised to keep the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland open without any barrier to keep the peace. Because the EU was one of the guarantors of the agreement, it insisted on respecting that provision, which necessitated the backstop arrangements if there was no free trade agreement between the EU and Britain.

And the backstop has become a heartburn for the Brexit hawks. Rather than making a reasonable compromise with the EU on that matter, the hawks in their zeal for untrammeled sovereignty and power for them seem eager to jeopardize the integrity of the United Kingdom itself.

Therefore, there was no way Britain could have cherry-picked what it liked and discard the rest in the negotiation.  

While the Europhiles in Conservative Party, like Justice Greening, have provided lukewarm support to May’s agreement, Eurosceptics have become raving made. Nearly two-dozens of them have sent letters to the 1922 committee challenging May’s leadership. In view of this, what surprises me is why May’s supporters and the so-called independent, objective media have not highlighted this aspect frequently and sufficiently.  

It does not mean May’s agreement is good; it is not, but it is the best she could get from the EU. If Brexit hawks were de facto in charge of the negotiation, the deal could have been much worse than this, I venture to presume, given their acrimonious relationships with their EU counterparts and their unbending attitude. In effect, Britain would have been forced to crash out of the EU at an intolerable economic cost.

More fundamentally, no negotiated deal, a product of compromises, is perfect. Therefore, May deserves appreciation for this imperfect deal. Only tactical were her mistakes.  She did not hold the hawks’ feet to the fire. So there they are backstabbing her to snatch her pedestal away.  

The agreement is likely to fail in parliament. If it does, May’s foes would be mainly to blame.  Changing the leadership will not change the dynamics with the EU.


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Murari Sharma: From Shenandoah to Longest Cave to Rockies

A scary black bear watches you at a regular interval along the road. Beware of wild animals, Do not step out of your vehicle, etc. are signs posted along the scenic drive. Nearly four hundred miles long cave passes under farms and towns. The windy city slumbers into winter. A sleepy capital prepares to be deserted. And silver white mountains stare you at your face. This is my whirlwind US trip this time, thanks to my son.

The tour from New York takes us to New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, where we spend the night in a small rural community. Next day, we reach the Summer White House, commuting through Virginia, West Virginia, and Virginia again. The Summer White House is located halfway through Shenandoah National Park, which extends in a narrow strip from West Virginia right down through Virginia.

Called the Brown House, which is indeed brown, is a small one-story cottage near a stream about an hour below the road that passes through the park. It has one large common room and a bedroom. This cottage used to be the Summer White House when Hoover used to be the US president from 1928 to 1932.

President Hoover loved to spend his summer in the Brown House when hot and mosquito-stricken Washington, DC, a swamp along the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia burned in the summer heat. His wife was into charitable activities and loved to live in the Brown House during summers.

A volunteer, his mustache dropping below his chin, gave a free sightseeing of the Brown House. He said President Hoover loved to fish in the stream nearby. You can still fish in the two streams flanking the Brown House. You should catch and release the native endangered species and catch and keep the invaders and abundant species. We trekked down from the road and back up on foot. You can also drive up there from the Washington, DC, which is about 75 miles southeast.

The park is covered with chestnut, northern red oak, birch, ash and linden trees. You drive through a scenic route for which you pay 30 dollars per car. Though 190 species of birds, including transient ones, and reptiles, fish, mammals, and insects are supposed to be the resident wild animals, we didn’t see any other than a few species of fish and gray squirrels.

Our next stop was Great Smokey Mountains National Park in southeastern Tennessee. Bobcats, eastern cougars, red foxes, black bears, coyotes, red wolves, and wild boars are supposedly the residents of the park, but we saw only white-tailed deer. The open view tower gave a panoramic view around it to the distant places, some covered with fog.

Andrew’s Bald, about an hour’s trek down from the tower, was disappointing. It was just a little patch of tree-less place from where you could see the park on three sides. The next destination was the real thing in Kentucky. Mammoth Cave. Longest cave in the world. Some 400 miles in length, nearly 200 miles longer than the next longest in Mexico.

At places it is so huge — wide and tall — you could organize a concert or an international meeting. Mammoth Dove is 192 feet high. In fact, in the old days, some concerts were put up in there after the mining operations were over. Saltpeter, which is used for making gunpowder, was extracted from the huge tunnel that opens to the Styx River. You pay 17 dollars per person for the 2-hour-long tour and feel the view was worth the money. There are carvings as old as 4,000 years on the cave’s wall.

Then to the windy city, driving through rural Kentucky and Louisville into Indiana and parts of Illinois. Non-whites were rarely visible in rural Kentucky, which looked poor but all white. No wonder, President Donald Trump, from the Republican Party, carried the state by a huge margin in the 2016 presidential elections. While you hardly see non-whites in rural Indiana, Indianapolis had many non-white faces.

And the urban Chicago had very few white faces. But there was little wind in the windy city during our stay there. Yes, the city was lulled by its growing cold. We entered Chicago through a dusty stretch of I-65 and encountered an unprecedented traffic, one of the scariest in the United States. At one point, we had to cross over 14 or 15 lanes from one end of the road to the other to reach our destination in the Oak Park area in the suburb. We had lunch at an Indian restaurant, and the spicy food with tons of chili burned my guts.

The Hancock Towers, 94 stories, the fourth tallest in Chicago, the former Sears and now Willis Towers being the tallest at 102 stories, had a panoramic view of the Michigan Lake and Chicago city. The walk along the lake was exhilarating.

Albany, the state capital of New York, was our next stop. It is a small town upstate New York. The State Capital, the Empire State Plaza and the Egg, a convention center of an egg’s shape were the main attractions in the town, where the majority of people, seen on the street, was non-whites. The Garden of the Gods, Estes National Park, Royal Gorge Bridge, and Deer Mountain Summit were the main attractions in Colorado, which was our next stop.

The Garden has brown sedimentary rocks. Estes National Park is ensconced in the Rocky Mountains. The Royal Gorge Bridge is the second highest bridge in the world, and it spans two sides of the Arkansas River. The Deer Mountain Summit, which is at 10,030 feet, is at the head of a more than two-mile climb among the green pine forests. Once again, there was the scare of black bears at Estes National Park, where the Deer Mountain trekking route and summit are located.

The snow-capped Rockies welcome you right from Denver Airport. We were on the lookout for the mighty bears on the way up and down a snow-covered trail. While we were there and still fearful of the black beer, we witnessed one woman and one man climbing alone, while other people climbed in groups like us. I appreciated their courage. In the end, we flew back to New York without encountering any black bear.

Murari Sharma: Transformation of May-Maybot-May?

British Prime Minister Teresa May presented herself as upbeat in her party’s annual conference, in September, in Birmingham. Her dance before her speech demonstrated it. However, recent developments suggest that the beleaguered premier had/s no political, economic or diplomatic reason to be euphoric.

Of course, May is a competent politician with a harsh edge. She rose through the Tory ranks to become home secretary and then prime minister beating her formidable competitors. She has proven her harshness with her ‘hostile environment’ policy, continued austerity under linguistic velvet, and Windrush legacy, which cost Amber Rudd her job as home secretary. 

However, after the snap general elections in 2017, she has not had much to celebrate. Politically, her party lost its majority in the parliament, making her reliant on the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to retain her post. She is caught in the tug of war between her pro-leave and pro-remain party members at this critical juncture of sensitive Brexit negotiations. 

Boris Johnson, her pro-leave former foreign secretary, has been stabbing her front and center in pursuit of his prime ministerial ambition. Several members of parliament from her party have already written letters to the 1922 Committee, expressing their lack of confidence in her leadership.

Diplomatically, because of the above reasons, May’s credibility as a reliable negotiating partner in Brussels is next to nil. The European Union has rejected her Chequers Plan, cherry-picked from a number of EU agreements with different countries. It has asserted that either UK must ensure free border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, as agreed in the Good Friday Agreement or let NI stay in EU. 

Economically, the British economy has slowed down because of Brexit uncertainty and potential loss of free access to EU single market. Consequently, growth rate has been revised downward. The Bank of England, the central bank, and businesses have warned that UK economy will tailspin if Britain crashes out of EU without an agreement. IMF has warned the no-deal Brexit might push UK into recession. 

Above all, the issue of Northern Ireland is an existential question for the United Kingdom. If London breaches the provision that there would be no physical border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, IRA violence may resume. It it abides by the agreement but crashes out of EU, it will have to effectively cede NI to EU/Ireland.

Faced with this set of dangers, what was it that May meant to show with her upbeatness and her dance in the Tory annual national conference?

A few things come readily to mind. One, it was all optics to show that she was not intimidated by Johnson’s onslaught. Two, she might have sized up that Johnson does not have a majority to topple her from her perch. Three, she might have just wanted to shed the image of Margot, a robotic person.

Four, it could be a swan song. Why go out crying if you have to go out anyway? Show confidence and hope for the best. If the situation goes against you, so be it. Five,  she might have been confident that her soon-to-be-made announcement about the end of the austerity could buy her some breathing space from challenges from all sides.

Only time will tell, and the time to tell is around the corner. In other words, May is on borrowed time. Those actively opposing her within her party apart, some of her own current ministers wanted to know from her Tory Conference speech to give an indication as to when she was planning to step aside. She gave no such indication.

But the reality is going to come to bite her sooner than later, and the bite will come from the Brexit quagmire unless EU generously accommodates her at the cost of undermining the single market’s integrity.


Murari Sharma: Kavanaugh has failed the job interview

On 27 September 2018, I watched the testimony by Christine Ford and Brett Kavanaugh in the US Senate Judiciary Committee and could not help to conclude that the US justice system has lost its soul in these hyper-partisan times. Though the hearing is only part of the vetting process, if it were the only process, Kavanaugh has failed to establish his bona fides and failed his job interview.

For starters, the US President Donald Trump has nominated Judge Kavanaugh for the vacancy left open in the Supreme Court by the retirement of Anthony Kennedy.  Ford has alleged the judge had sexually molested her when both of them were in high school. He said he never did it.

Both Ford and Kavanaugh did it under oath. She said with 100 percent certainty that Kavanaugh assaulted her. He said, though sometimes he drank too many beers, he never assaulted Ford. Evidently, one of them has lied under oath and committed a crime, but it would be impossible to know who has been mendacious until an independent body carries out a thorough investigation.  

Both Ford and Kavanaugh made their cases forcefully and emotionally. Several times, both suffered a broken voice. Both had backers in the Judiciary Committee. Democrat senators were soft on Ford. Republican senators asked Rachel Mitchel, a prosecutor tapped by the all-male Republican senators to question Ford, and openly urged and egged on the judge to spit fire against the Democrats. 

Other than that, their presentations were in sharp contrasts.  Ford was calm, clear, coherent, professional and believable. In contrast, Kavanaugh was hysterical, angry, incoherent, obfuscating, evasive, openly political and unprofessional. If they were being interviewed for their academic grade, Ford would have received my A+ and Kavanaugh no more than a C.  

Similarly, if Ford and Kavanaugh were competing for the same one vacancy and if I was one of the selectors, my vote would have gone to Ford, not Kavanaugh. I have several reasons for such evaluation.   

One, Ford was measured, civil, polite, composed, and apolitical. These are qualities the American people would want in Supreme Court justices who are appointed for a lifetime. Kavanaugh was just the opposite — hysterical, rude, restless and threatening, and highly political. He openly lashed out at Democrats, almost half of the Judiciary Committee membership — 10 out of 21 members. 

Two, Supreme Court justices, appointed for a lifetime, must in principle stay, and act, above the political fray. Ford mentioned that she was independent and acted like one, without slinging partisan muck. On the other hand, the man who was supposed to be above politics attacked one party as if he was one of the political operatives, not a judge who must apply the law without fear or favor.  

Three, Ford’s presentation and answers were clear, logical and coherent, like that of an accomplished judge, even though she was the victim of a sexual assault by Kavanaugh.  In contrast, the judge was evasive, obfuscating, and frequently illogical and incoherent. 

Four, I am sure both Ford and Kavanaugh rehearsed their presentation prior to the testimony, but their public presentations were in sharp contrast. She could have been more hysterical because she was the victim. But Kavanaugh was way more hysterical, aggressive and over-rehearsed, giving the impression that he was hiding the facts behind the drama. Perhaps, he rehearsed too much.

The judge might have imitated the hyper combative style of President Trump who nominated him. The style the privileged minority grievance and anger shown towards the lesser mortals who are trying to hold them to account. But there is a significant difference between them.

Trump has been using elite victim-hood and anger to score political points and prolong his rule beyond the first term. It makes his style politically understandable. Kavanaugh, a judge, must have been balanced, judicious, and professional.  But he was ill-tempered and hysterical and therefore professionally inexcusable. 

What makes Kavanaugh’s performance dreadful is that, if he is confirmed, the Supreme Court, already polarized between conservative and liberal justices, will be further politicized. At 53, as a lifetime judge, his legal views will shape the course of the US justice system for decades in the wrong direction. 

On a personal level, I fully sympathize with Ford who was sexually assaulted. If Kavanaugh is innocent, as he has claimed he is, I equally sympathize with him. But the issue has already tarnished his image beyond redemption. Even if the Republican majority in the Senate rams his nomination through (though FBI is asked to investigate the allegations before the Senate vote), his public image as a reckless sex predator when he was young will stick to him forever regardless of the FBI’s findings.

As a result, even when he uses his best legal mind, his legal opinions and verdicts will always be suspect of partisan and anti-women bias. Therefore, it would be best for the US justice system for Kavanaugh to pull out his candidature and let someone else without such controversy take the seat in the Supreme Court.  

Murari Sharma: Brexit — A Political Project

If you are frightened that Britain’s exit from the European Union will make life in Britain more expensive and less pleasant, you could very well be in the majority now. But as a British citizen, you can still prevent it if you and millions of other voters like you write to your members of parliament and tell them at their local surgeries that Britain should not leave the European Union.

It would not be easy, however. Most Brexiters and some Remainers would argue that Brexit must happen owing to the fact that the British people have voted in favor of Brexit in the 2016 referendum. On the surface, that is true.

However, in essence, it is not true for two fundamental reasons. One, democracy allows people to change their mind in every election and change their government if they deem it necessary. Therefore, another referendum can change the result of the 2016 referendum.  

Two, when the British people voted to leave the EU in 2016, they did not know what they know now. The Brexit leaders had lied to them that Britain outside the EU would be much better off. Now the government itself has published a series of papers describing the potential short-term disaster — lack of food and medicine, miles long queue of trucks at Dover, etc. —  and long-term impacts and measures to mitigate them, including the mobilization of the military. 

To avoid such a disaster, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has written in The Observer of September 15, 2018 that the British people must have the second vote on whether they want to leave the EU. Even wildly ideological Brexiters — such as Jacob Rees-Mog, Boris Johnson, and Davis Davis — now concede in their significant volte-face that there would be short-term pain when Britain leaves the EU.

However, that was not what these Brexiters had told the British voters before the 2016 referendum. At that time, they had falsely promised that Britain would control migration, divert the 350 million pounds paid to the EU to the National Health Service, and conclude trade agreements with the rest of the world quickly and favorably. None of them has turned, or will turn, to be true.

Let us examine these elements individually. The British society is aging, and its birth rate has tumbled to below the replacement rate. To work in farms, factories, shops and old-age homes and to pay taxes, you need all categories of people — skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled — through immigration.  If you stop immigrants from EU countries, you would have to bring them from other nations. So controlling immigration was largely a myth.

Likewise, the promise of an additional 350 million pounds to be given to the NHS every week was a snake oil. According to the Treasury, Britain would lose 12 billion pounds every year if it cannot strike a free trade deal with the EU, which is several times more than the expected savings of 350 million pounds paid to the EU every week. So the NHS will have less money and it will also lose hundreds of thousands of skilled healthcare people from the continent when Britain gets out of the European club. 

In the trade front too, the picture is not rosy. Japan, India, and other large trading nations had warned before the referendum that Britain would lose if it left the EU. These countries would rather negotiate a trade agreement with the EU covering 27 countries than the United Kingdom.

Similarly, the United States under President Obama had told Britain that it would have to wait in the back of the queue for a trade agreement. No matter what he says at the spur of the moment, President Trump would not conclude any trade agreement without his country having a significant advantage over the British side to fulfill his pledge of “America First.” 

In fact, Brexit is a project of the British elite, for the British elite, and by the British elite facilitated by the lay people through their votes.  The prominent Brexiter have already secured their economic future in Britain and outside. For instance, Jacob Rees-Mog has established the arm of his investment fund on the continent. Some of them have their accounts in Bermuda, Panama and other tax heavens.

But Brexit will make these elite politically more powerful against the ordinary people. They can gut slash taxes for themselves as they please, gut the state as they want, destroy the labor protection provision as they wish, and limit your human rights as they find convenient, without the checks and balances from the EU and the European Court of Justice.  

Having said that, I am not here to suggest that Britain has no future outside the EU. Simply because it has left EU, Britain will not be Somalia or Egypt. It will still remain a rich country. The question is whether it would be as rich as the comparable European countries, let alone being Singapore, as the Brexiters seem to dream. 

Britain can pioneer a new technology and pull ahead of other European countries, as it had done with the industrial revolution. But short of that, it does not have the bullying strength of the United States to have favorable trade deals or does not enjoy the strategic commercial location as Singapore does. So take what Brexiters say only with a pinch of salt and support the second vote. 


Murari Sharma: Big Countries Often Don’t Like Rules

There has been a continuing debate about whether India wants both the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to succeed or is using the former to dilute and weaken the latter. The fourth summit of Bimstec concluded recently in Kathmandu did not dispel the reason for that debate.

For starters, Saarc consists of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Bimstec has Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand as its members. In both groups, India —  the largest country and economy — is the pivot.

Evidently, progress in Saarc has been sluggish. Established in 1985, it has set up some regional institutions, harmonized and standardized the nomenclature of goods, and relaxed some visa rules, and that is about it in almost four decades. Introducing a free trade regime in the region a-la the European Union remains a pipe dream.

For this slow progress, the strategic rivalry between India and Pakistan is often cited as the reason; it is certainly a major reason but not the only reason.

About Saarc, India has always held ambivalent views. On the one hand, New Delhi needs Saarc and free trade within its members to expand its own market for goods, investment and technology and to project regional power, including in the event that the UN security council expanded to possibly include India as one of the permanent members.

On the other, New Delhi privately sees Saarc as a forum where smaller countries seek to gang up against it to tame it. One Indian former foreign secretary was caught fuming against Saarc along this line. Bimstec will not be free from the same Indian ambivalence for the same reason.

However, this attitude is not unique to India. All large countries don’t appreciate the regional/global mechanisms and rules that demand of them to compromise their interest for greater good and demonstrate such ambivalence. Transformational leaders make compromises for long-term interest and hide their disdain for such rules and mechanisms. Transactional leaders like the US President Donald Trump wear it on their sleeves.

Trump has done it by pulling the USA out of the Transpacific Trade Partnership and the Paris Climate Agreement and threatened to pull out of the NATO, the WTO, and NAFTA.

In addition, we know it takes years to develop uniform standards and regulatory alliance necessary for a free market. For instance, several countries have been negotiating for years and even decades to join the EU. On the other side of the spectrum, the United Kingdom is struggling to strike a balance between the regulatory alliance to benefit from the EU’s common market when it leaves the organization and to exercise its independent right to make laws and control the border.

Therefore, one cannot imagine that the regulatory and standards alignments within Bimstec and between Bimstec and Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), which would be inevitable owing to Myanmar and Thailand being members of the latter as well, is going to be easy. Which means, in the short to medium term, the prospects for Bimstec to establish a free trade area are not any better than doing so within Saarc. In the long run, as John Keynes has said, we would all be dead.

Yours truly has no doubt on his mind that that Indian authorities understand this complication very well and yet they have put their feet in two boats. This has given room for the suspicion that perhaps New Delhi has pushed Bimstec forward to sideline Saarc. It is up to the Indian government to dispel such suspicion by pushing the Saarc process forward as its largest member while also moving ahead with Bimstec.