As the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) unfolded last month in New York, the world bore witness to a diverse assembly of nations grappling with an array of global challenges. Among the voices that echoed through the halls of this diplomatic forum were those of South Asian countries. India was represented by Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar; Pakistan's delegation was steered by Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar; Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina represented Bangladesh; Nepal, under the leadership of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda,” articulated its stance; and Sri Lanka saw President Ranil Wickremesinghe convey the nation's perspectives. These distinguished representatives played pivotal roles in championing their respective nations' priorities and visions for a more equitable, sustainable, and secure world.
However, beneath this narrative of unity, resilience, and determination, a critical observation emerges — one that becomes more evident as we delve deeper into the proceedings. While these nations articulated their commitment to addressing global issues, there was a conspicuous absence of emphasis on intra-regional cooperation within South Asia itself. This void raises concerns about the state of regional collaboration in South Asia and the challenges that may lie ahead.
Climate Change and Sustainable Development: A Common Thread
The narratives emerging from South Asian nations at UNGA78, the Climate Ambition Summit, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Summit collectively underscored a critical common theme: the imperative to confront climate change and advance sustainable development. This shared acknowledgment is grounded in a deep understanding of the climate crisis and its extensive ramifications, particularly acute in South Asia — a region disproportionately burdened by environmental challenges. Over the past decade, climate change has surged to the forefront as a significant nontraditional security concern in the region, demanding immediate action. According to the World Bank, more than half of South Asia's population has experienced the impacts of one or more climate-related disasters in the past 20 years. As a stark example, the devastating floods in Pakistan just last year affected 33 million individuals and destroyed nearly 2.2 million homes across the nation.
- India, an emerging key player in the climate arena, emphasized the necessity of global collaboration to combat climate change. As a major contributor to achieving SDG targets, India highlighted that its accomplishments should serve as an encouraging example for others on this transformative journey. Notably, India, along with China and the United States, was absent from the Climate Ambition Summit, while its neighboring countries — Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan — secured speaking slots at the event.
- Pakistan stressed the importance of fulfilling climate change commitments made by developed nations, calling for international support for adaptation in developing countries. It recognized the vulnerabilities exacerbated by climate change, citing the devastating floods in the country last year and the urgent need to operationalize the loss and damage fund. During an informal briefing aligned with Resolution 77/1, which expressed solidarity with Pakistan's flood-stricken regions, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged donors and international financial institutions to honor their pledges and advance the Resilient Recovery, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction Framework (4RF).
- The position on climate financing and the importance of international solidarity in addressing climate ambition and helping countries achieve SDGs was also reiterated by Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Economic Transformation: Pathways to Prosperity
The pursuit of economic transformation and prosperity emerged as a central theme within the discourse of South Asian countries, reflecting a nuanced understanding of the complex relationship among economic growth, poverty alleviation, and social equity. Each country’s perspective sheds light on its aspirations and strategies for inclusive development.
- India, as the regional heavyweight, leveraged its recent G20 presidency to highlight its commitment to economic progress. The initiatives outlined in the New Delhi Leaders' Declaration, particularly the proposal for an India–Middle East–Europe Economic Corridor, point to India's ambitions to expand its economic reach and influence. Given its status as the world's most populous nation and the fifth-largest economy, India recognizes the imperative of shouldering greater responsibility, especially within the Global South, and making substantial contributions to global economic stability.
- Pakistan addressed its economic challenges and sought international assistance for economic development and poverty reduction. The continuation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the establishment of a Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) were shared as indicators of Pakistan's commitment to attracting investments, especially in key sectors such as agriculture, mining, energy, and IT.
- Bangladesh highlighted its economic progress and development achievements with a keen focus on inclusive economic growth. By advocating for an international financial system that provides accessible, low-cost funding to developing nations and equitable access to the International Monetary Fund's Special Drawing Rights (SDR) during crises, Bangladesh emphasized the critical role of financial stability in sustaining development gains. Additionally, the proposal for a "disaster clause" within lending instruments showcased Bangladesh's forward-thinking approach to risk management.
- Nepal, on its path to graduating from least developed country (LDC) status by 2026, flagged the importance of international support in various forms, including development assistance, foreign direct investment, and export promotion. The call for coordinated efforts in debt relief, restructuring, and debt swaps aligned with the objectives outlined in the Doha Program of Action (DPoA) and signified Nepal's commitment to managing its fiscal challenges while advancing its development agenda.
- Sri Lanka expressed its commitment to lead the country toward sustainable and stable recovery and growth, focusing on benefiting all segments of society. It underlined the importance of preserving the universal rules-based multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organization (WTO) at its core.
Security and Geopolitics: Seeking Stability, Peace, and Cooperation
South Asian nations at UNGA78 also addressed international security concerns and geopolitical dynamics, underlining the importance of peace and stability in the region.
- India, as a prominent regional and global actor, articulated its vision for a rules-based international order that applies uniformly to all nations. By asserting the importance of upholding the UN Charter, India called for greater global solidarity, challenging the prevailing dominance of a select few nations in shaping the global agenda — it stated that the only way for rules to work is if they are applied equally to all. India's advocacy for South-South cooperation within an era marked by East-West polarization and North-South disparities reinforces its ambition to champion the interests of the Global South. Hosting the "India-UN FOR Global South: Delivering for Development" event alongside its participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) Foreign Ministers' meeting exemplifies India's ongoing commitment to broadening its diplomatic influence and amplifying the voices of underrepresented regions. India also advocated for Security Council reform to ensure contemporary and inclusive representation. Without explicitly mentioning any countries, India stressed that combating terrorism and extremism should not be subject to political convenience, and that cherry-picking should not apply to respecting territorial integrity.
- Pakistan advocated for peaceful relations with its neighbors, including India, while emphasizing the Kashmir issue as pivotal to regional and bilateral peace. However, the absence of any mention of Kashmir in India's statement affirms the deeply entrenched nature of this dispute. Afghanistan remains strategically important for Pakistan, and it called for international assistance, especially for Afghan women and girls, humanitarian aid, economic revival, and connectivity projects with Central Asia.
- Bangladesh called attention to the extensive consequences of the conflict in Ukraine, which have disrupted global food, financial, and energy security and significantly hindered the progress toward achieving SDGs in developing nations.
- Nepal acknowledged the global challenges brought about by the resurgence of geopolitical competition, power polarization, and economic nationalism. It strongly opposed the use or threat of force against the territorial integrity, political independence, and sovereignty of any country and reiterated its call for the time-bound disarmament of weapons of mass destruction.
- Sri Lanka expressed concerns about the resurgence of former big power rivalries and geopolitical tensions leading to conflicts and insecurity. It called upon powerful states in the UN Security Council to uphold their responsibility for maintaining international peace and security.
- While the discussion regarding the Ukraine conflict as a central challenge was limited, all South Asian countries, as reflected in their statements, demonstrated a commitment to fundamental principles essential for addressing international conflicts through diplomatic means.
Missed Opportunities for Regional Cooperation at UNGA78
As South Asian nations spoke at UNGA78, they conveyed a message of solidarity, tenacity, and unwavering resolve in the face of global challenges. However, it is worth noting that there was limited emphasis on intra-regional cooperation within South Asia itself. While these nations articulated their commitment to addressing global issues, there was a missed opportunity to give weight to the importance of fostering regional stability through collaborative efforts on shared challenges such as trade, security, climate change, and disaster management. Such regional cooperation, with the facilitation of the UN, could have yielded significant benefits.
Furthermore, the fact that the informal South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Council of Ministers' meeting did not happen, despite Nepal's efforts as the current chair, raises concerns about the state of the SAARC process. The persistent failure to convene high-level meetings, including the summit, spotlights the significant obstacles hindering SAARC's efficacy. This situation may indicate a broader lack of cohesion and trust among member countries. It also suggests that these countries might be prioritizing other bilateral, regional, and multilateral engagements, such as the Quad, BRICS (which brings Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa together), and the I2U2 bloc of India, Israel, United Arab Emirates, and the U.S., over SAARC, potentially diminishing its role as a platform for regional collaboration in South Asia
The commitment to revitalizing SAARC and fostering greater intra-regional cooperation and trust building should remain a priority. By doing so, South Asian countries can not only amplify their global influence but also better serve the needs and aspirations of their people, combat shared challenges, and ultimately achieve a more prosperous and harmonious South Asia as well as contribute to global peace and stability.