Pakistan set the Chinese cat among the South Asian canaries this week in the foothills of the Himalayas. Instead of cooperation, the 18th SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit that concluded on Thursday was a theatre for geopolitical games with India rising up as a bulwark to stop China’s bid to expand its [...]


SAARC: China offers a way forward


Pakistan set the Chinese cat among the South Asian canaries this week in the foothills of the Himalayas. Instead of cooperation, the 18th SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit that concluded on Thursday was a theatre for geopolitical games with India rising up as a bulwark to stop China’s bid to expand its influence in South Asia via SAARC.

The Indira doctrine, named after India’s Iron Lady, former Premier Indira Gandhi, is not dead. The doctrine with which India tried to subjugate its smaller neighbours in the 1970s was in full view of South Asia at the summit venue in the form of a Narendra Modi doctrine. In no uncertain terms did India drive home the point that South Asia was its domain and no outside power could stake a claim for the NumeroUno position.

India was hyper-active at Kathmandu as the Pakistani doosra to invite China into the ‘club’ took all by surprise. India’s diplomatic machine worked overtime to quash China’s almost brazen bid to seek full membership in the eight-nation grouping. Modi’s India wants to make SAARC a viable economic counterweight to China. Perhaps, this was why the Indian Prime Minister made his inauguration in May this year a mini-SAARC show with Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa and other SAARC leaders invited to grace the occasion. With China fast moving towards the position of the world’s No. 1 economic power, India’s aim may be wishful thinking. How can SAARC be a counterweight to China unless it emerges as a confederation or an economic union like the European Union? Although India opposes China’s full membership in SAARC, it has no qualms about being a partner with China in BRICS(Brazil, Russia,India, China and South Africa) and other arrangements such as the new China-led Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank.

In Colombo, India’s ruling BJP senior leader Dr. Subramanian Swamy struck a discordant note to that of his leader. He said to make SAARC a meaningful body like the G20 or ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) “the association should have China as a full time member….. without including bi-lateral issues in the agenda and bringing China into the association, it is a sheer waste of time speaking about SAARC”.Speaking at the Lalith Athulathmudali Memorial lecture on Wednesday, Dr. Swamy, India’s best known China watcher said that he was not articulating his party’s views but predicted that before long the BJP and other Indian parties will start following what he says.

On the part of China, it is on a hunting spree for free trade agreements. Even at the recently concluded APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit, China marketed its roadmap for a free trade agreement spanning the Pacific Rim. SAARC already has the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) in place though in terms of economic benefits to member states the arrangement stands wanting. China can certainly inject new life into this agreement.

China, an observer state within SAARC shares common borders with five SAARC states. It is willing to invest US$ 30 billion in South Asian infrastructure projects in the next five years and says it could take the volume of trade between SAARC and China to US$ 150 billion. But should SAARC rush to tie the knot with China, which is the modern-day colonialist or the modern-day version of the East India Company that opened Britain’s colonisation process in South Asia? Just by spending a trickle of its excess foreign reserves which run into four trillion dollars, China can ‘Chinise’ SAARC nations, perhaps the exception being big brother India. When did we last hear of Chinese leader sextolling the virtues of communism or socialism? China is today run like a giant transnational with President Xi Jinping as CEO.

SAARC is now mired in power politics with Pakistan overtly, and others, including Sri Lanka covertly — countries that receive Chinese largesse in the form of aid and loans in millions of dollars– pushing for China’s full membership to clip India’s wings within the grouping. But any change within SAARC requires the consensus of all member states. Thus China cannot come in unless all eight members agree. In a bid to stop the other SAARC nations’ flirtation with China, India offered to increase its investment in the region.

In another summit spectacle, Pakistan refused to sign three connectivity agreements which the Indians were pushing for. Two of these agreements called for heavy vehicle and rail movements between SAARC nations and the third promoted a common power grid. However, a last minute handshake between Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at Thursday’s retreat — after the two leaders cold-shouldered each other on the opening day — salvaged the summit which had by then been written off by many observers as a flop. Pakistan later agreed to sign only the power grid deal.

The conflict between South Asia’s nuclear neighbours is widely blamed for SAARC’s poor performance and its failure to bloom like ASEAN. Mutual suspicion and India’s failure to shed its overbearing attitude along with the failure to find a solution to the Kashmiri issue have stymied SAARC’s progress. Even in people-to-people contact, India does not offer the same visa facilities it offers those outside the region.

Sri Lanka’s former President J.R Jayewardene probably foresaw such a situation and that was why he said at the inaugural summit in Dhaka in 1985, “We are setting this ship afloat today. There may be mutiny on board, I hope not. The sea may be stormy but the ship must sail on and enter the ports of poverty, hunger, unemployment, malnutrition, disease and seek to bring comfort to those who need it.”

SAARC’s achievements have been minimal.Yet, it is encouraging to note that in the Kathmandu Declaration, SAARC nations have included good governance along with the usual subjects such as terrorism, cultural heritage, health and other areas that keep appearing year in, year out,in every summit declaration.

The SAARC Charter clearly needs revision, 29 years after its formation. It needs to include progressive clauses that will not only improve trade and economic cooperation among member states but also promote democracy, free media and good governance, which are vital for sustaining economic growth and crucially, minimising corruption — the plague of most South Asian nations– and a more openness between member-states. Building trust among each other is basic and fundamental to all what has to be achieved if it is to have any real impact on the daily lives of South Asia’s 1.8 billion people.

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