Chinese whispers get louder in SAARC

China has started pushing for full membership in SAARC

New Delhi: It was a Chinese-sponsored news report from the Nepalese capital Kathmandu just ahead of the Saarc summit that set the cat among the pigeons. A publication of the Chinese state news agency Xinhua came out with an edition just ahead of the Saarc summit that quoted several serving and former Nepalese ministers as pressing for full membership for China in the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), the south Asian grouping founded in 1985. The issue led to a political storm, with many suggesting that Beijing was using Nepal to muscle its way into the grouping while others felt it was an idea whose time has come.

As if on cue, the Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately reacted in Beijing, saying that China wanted to “elevate its partnership” with Saarc. However, Beijing stopped short of clearly indicating whether it wanted full membership. A few days ago, when the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) was asked by a reporter in New Delhi on China’s ambitions for full membership, the MEA said no proposal had ever been submitted by the Chinese on the matter. But as soon as the controversy broke out in Kathmandu, the MEA made its position clear. An MEA official in Kathmandu was quoted as saying, “We need to first deepen cooperation among Saarc, before we try and move it horizontally.” The statement indicated that India was not too keen on full-fledged membership for China. China attained “observer” status at Saarc in 2005 when Nepal vociferously pushed for it. In fact, Nepal was then believed to have linked observer status for China with the then proposed full membership for Afghanistan which subsequently became the eighth full-fledged member of Saarc in 2007. The Chinese desire to join Saarc and fish in troubled waters doesn’t seem to be too startling, if one were to go by the politics that has plagued the South Asian bloc. Ever since its foundation in 1985, Saarc has often been accused in the past of being an under-achiever, largely because of the Indo-Pak hostility that has plagued it.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself put it, “When we speak of Saarc, we usually hear two reactions — cynicism and scepticism. This, sadly, is in a region throbbing with the optimism of our youth. Today, less than 5 per cent of the region’s global trade takes place between us... As Saarc we have failed to move with the speed that our people expect and want. Some argue that it is because of the region’s development gap. But, that should actually spur us to do more. Or, is it because we are stuck behind the walls of our differences and hesitant to move out of the shadows of the past?” Currently, the members of Saarc are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. For an eight-nation organisation, the number of observers are staggering since they outnumber even the number of members. China, the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Mauritius, Myanmar and Iran are currently observers, which means that they can attend the opening and closing sessions of the summit and do not have voting rights.

But it’s tempting to believe that the Chinese desire for Saarc membership is an attempt by China to exploit the differences within Saarc by cornering India, thereby expanding Chinese influence even further in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean. Currently, India is perceived by many in Saarc as the “big brother” but China would be the “bigger brother”, if it were to join. While Pakistan has always been a staunch Chinese ally for obvious reasons, Beijing has studiously worked on cultivating ties with Saarc members such as Nepal, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and even Afghanistan, using big-ticket infrastructure projects and weapons supply as bait. JNU academician and China expert Prof. Srikanth Kondapalli says, “There are opportunities for China. Most of the Saarc countries are small and can be easily weaned towards China. There are some anti-India sentiments in the small countries. There is scope for China to expand its influence. Most of the South Asian countries export raw materials, which China is hungry for. So south Asian countries can be an engine for China’s growth. China is also fostering robust connectivity into countries like Nepal from its Tibet Autonomous Region. It is also seeing the Karakoram Highway (to Pakistan) as an economic corridor that can bring west Asian energy to its Xinjiang province. Apart from road and rail linkages, there has been massive investment in the telecom sector including in Sri Lanka and Maldives. So, the strategic communication will also be in China’s hands. Also, China has always had a traditional policy to checkmate India in its own backyard.”

Former Foreign Secretary Salman Haider points out, “Smaller countries in Saarc have been interested in having China as an observer. There is a feeling that Saarc will be strengthened by its widening. Also, there is a thinking that China will be a counterweight to India, going by the assessment of the way in which regional economic activity is progressing. India is 70 per cent of Saarc and so preponderant within Saarc that some of the smaller countries feel uncomfortable. The Chinese economy also has a huge impact on Saarc. The Chinese have huge plans, whether it is infrastructure development or the maritime silk route. China wants to be active in certain Saarc projects. This will strengthen economic linkages to the benefit of the Chinese and it will also serve a strategic purpose.”

When asked about India’s response, Mr Haider adds, “India is responding perfectly. We have not allowed this to impact our ties with China. But if we feel that there is something in the Chinese involvement with Saarc that affects us, we will definitely point it out. India will not be daunted.”

Prof. Kondapalli feels India has the traditional image of being a bully in Saarc and needs to change this. “India’s response to this is that it should unilaterally invest more in Saarc. India, with huge resources, should take the lead by carrying out more development activities in its smaller neighbours. For instance, generation of hydroelectricity in Nepal is a field where India can do a lot. While we exaggerate Chinese capability to spend money on infrastructure projects, it is true that China has a huge capacity build-up to execute projects on a large scale. But then India has its own areas of niche expertise in technical collaboration. While the Chinese rely on their own manpower, Indian companies involve local manpower in the countries where they execute projects and so this is more beneficial to the local population. So far as perception is concerned, however, India has the traditional image of being a bully and needs to change this,” Prof. Kondapalli says.

( Source : dc )
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