May issue 2004

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 20 years ago

Will India welcome China’s growing interest in SAARC? Ideally, yes. It helps New Delhi’s recent initiatives to remain in close contact with Beijing. The context of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit to China last June is too fresh to be forgotten. To the Chinese leadership, the idea to get closer to South Asia’s regional grouping appears to be geographically logical, if not for any other consideration. China shares borders with four of the seven members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which was formed in Dhaka in 1985 : Bhutan, Nepal, India and Pakistan.

But India has yet to react to China’s latest proposition to have a formal relationship with this South Asian grouping. And, in fact, New Delhi may take time before it makes its viewpoint known to the rest to the region, and to the world at large. Beijing’s intent about developing proximity with SAARC was expressed through China’s ambassador to Nepal, Mr Sun Heping , who chose to reveal the matter in a newspaper interview. ” The time is now basically ripe to establish relations between China and SAARC,” he told People’s Review, an English weekly, on March 25. In fact, an indication of such an expression had surfaced as early as January, when SAARC met for its 12th summit in Islamabad. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was the only non-SAARC leader to send a special message of goodwill to the summiteers.

Analysts in Kathmandu, where the secretariat of the regional body is located, agree that SAARC as a bloc stands to gain from the vast market potential that China has to offer. And because of its size, population and economic activities, India is bound to be the largest beneficiary. To transform this positive scenario into a reality at the dawn of the new millennium, leaders of the region should disown an anachronistic part of history and let their present-day political geography take its course. But are countries with a legacy drawn from the British empire prepared to taken on the challenges of a globalised world of inter-dependence? Are they prepared to shun rivalries and enhance cooperative bilateral relations in the first place ?

Till the mid-70s‚ South Asia remained a mere geographical expression with mutually reinforcing economic activities at a low ebb. It failed to emerge as a distinct identity shaped by the security considerations of the Cold War. But in later years‚ regional leaders who stood at variance began to converge on the need for a broader regional cooperative framework. The issue picked up after Birendra, the then king of Nepal, called for cooperation in exploiting the abundant water resources for mutual benefit in the Colombo Plan Consultative Conference held in Kathmandu. However‚ the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the return of Indira Gandhi to power had mutually conflicting implications in that the former underscored the urgency of forging an alliance to contain the expanding security threat in the region and the latter acted as an impediment.

India always suffered from the perceived threat that all smaller neighbours would gang up against it‚ while Pakistan suffered from Indo-phobia, fearing that such a forum would help India to perpetuate its dominance over the region in general and Pakistan in particular. However, both countries failed to see the security threat of Moscow in the strategic canvas of South Asia. Nevertheless‚ the proposal to concretise a regional arrangement got through with Pakistan seeing in it a chance to engage India in the regional body‚ thereby reducing Indo-Soviet collusion and with India seeing in it a chance to disengage Pakistan from the US-China-Pakistan axis which was gradually taking shape. It was against this background that SAARC came into being. It is another matter that Indo-Pak relations‚ frequently blowing hot and cold‚ continue to stand in the way of the unhindered growth of the regional body.

In SAARC‚ political matters always get precedence over mutual economic benefits and cooperation which‚ in fact‚ form the very spirit of the regional body. The SAARC Charter stipulates that the summit should be held every year and there is no provision for adjournment. But only 12 summits have been held during the past 19 years of its existence. Behind every adjournment lie predominantly political factors. To put it more clearly‚ at the bottom of it lies the tug of war between the two sharks of SAARC.

Various social and economic issues like collective efforts for poverty alleviation and campaigns against trafficking in women have been sacrificed at the altar of their mutual feud. For instance‚ the 11th SAARC Summit that was to be held in November 1999 was deferred to January 2002 at the request of Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee to protest the bloodless coup by Pervez Musharraf‚ that catapulted him to power on October 12 the same year.

The Indian leadership chose to ignore the fact that Ziaur Rahman‚ the then president of Bangladesh and one of the architects of SAARC‚ was himself a military ruler. And several military rulers of Pakistan and Bangladesh have already participated in earlier SAARC summits. Seasoned Nepali diplomat Yadav Kant Silwal, who previously served as the SAARC secretary general, says : “Soured Indo-Pak relations have adversely affected the growth of SAARC.”

The less-than-happy relations between Nepal and Bhutan‚ India and Pakistan and Bangladesh and India continue to dog the regional grouping. Needless to say‚ SAARC remains Indo-centric‚ politically‚ economically and socially. At the start of 2002, President Pervez Musharraf had to fly to Kathmandu, the venue of the 11th summit, via Beijing, due to the ban on the use of Indian airspace. The situation had only partly improved on the eve of the 12th conference being held in Pakistan. Nepal’s Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa had to take a flight to Bangkok first to reach the Pakistani capital. The return journey was quicker as both India and Pakistan had lifted the ban by the time the summit was over. A seemingly serious process to bring about a thaw started in January this year. Exchange of increased number of diplomats between the two capitals and a much awaited visit by the Indian cricket team to Pakistan are some recent positive developments.

In the 10th summit — held in Colombo — all SAARC leaders had expressed grave concerns over the nuclear arms race which had stalled the concept of free trade among and between the South Asian countries. To make matters worse, terrorists attacked the Indian parliament building. India’s anger against Pakistan intensified, resulting in a further delay of the convening of the 11th summit in Kathmandu.

In order to steer the regional grouping ahead, both India and Pakistan need to establish good relations with all their neighbouring countries‚ cut down their defence budget and lay stress on socio-economic development. The agreement on SAFTA‚ the SAARC Social Charter, and the additional protocol on terrorism in the recent Islamabad Summit may go a long way in promoting meaningful cooperation and economic development in South Asia. For the first time‚ in the history of SAARC‚ “Kashmir” and “crossborder terrorism” did not figure in the summit. But India and Pakistan must prefer consultation over confrontation‚ concord over discord. Like Indonesia in ASEAN‚ India should first evince magnanimity corresponding to its size‚ population and resources. Over the past few years‚ India has made great strides in its economy. In 2003‚ its economic growth rate registered 7.5-8 per cent, and there is a possibility of it exceeding even China in the next few years. To facilitate the growth of SAARC‚ bilateral issues should be allowed to be discussed‚ not on the sidelines of the summit‚ but formally in the summit itself. Thirteen important Conventions have already been signed. But these do not provide the region cause for complacency. If the two countries continue to look at each other through suspicious eyes‚ SAARC is bound to become a hostage to their tensions.

Meanwhile, the prospect of China’s involvement in SAARC has begun to attract public attention since the Chinese Ambassador put to rest erstwhile speculations by saying : “Being a close neighbour of South Asian countries‚ China has always attached great importance to cooperative relations with SAARC. The Chinese government is ready to work together with the governments of all South Asian countries to promote the cause of peace and development in the region.” The response comes in the wake of the 12th SAARC Summit which concluded in Islamabad in January this year. Diplomatic analysts are of the view that China’s entry would trigger a flurry of economic activity‚ thereby ensuring economic progress of the region. That such declared interest comes at a time when relations on both Sino-Indian as well as the Indo-Pakistan fronts are upbeat can hardly be coincidental.

Former SAARC secretary-general Silwal has this to say: ” It is a welcome sign. China is a huge market with a 1.2 billion plus population.” The caveat, he says, are outstanding issues including border disputes. Unless there is an atmosphere of trust and confidence, China’s association with SAARC cannot generate expected economic dividends through trading activities.

However‚ Silwal holds no brief for keeping China at bay. We must keep on holding interactions with it‚ he says. “I don’t think economic activities will grow overnight after China’s joining SAARC‚ since China itself is in a transitional phase, like Japan in the ’50s.”