By Shastri Ramachandran* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis
NEW DELHI (IDN) – The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is not a shining model of regional cooperation. It is seen as a talking shop – of a region that accounts for the largest population of the poor – with lofty goals, high-sounding resolutions, ringing declarations and little by way of achievement.
Hence, the increased international interest in SAARC – with more countries wanting to become observers, and observers aspiring to full membership – is surprising and flattering. Perhaps, this is because of South Asia’s rising geopolitical importance.
The eight-member body (comprising Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), whose foreign ministers met in Maldives in February, has nine observers: China, Japan, South Korea, Myanmar, Australia, Iran, Mauritius, the European Union and the United States. There are others, such as Turkey, asking to be made observers. More observers might lead to a situation where they overwhelm the primary members; and influence the agenda.
One country, raring to become a full member, is China. And, predictably, a powerful section of ‘official’ India is opposed to it. It is in this context that External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s call, in Male on February 21, for “institutional reform within SAARC” needs to be viewed.
“SAARC needs to clarify its thinking on the nature and the direction of its relationships with partner States who have Observer status,” he said. “Some of the Observer States have done commendable work with our Association, but it is important that we define a clear set of policies and objectives for these relationships and their future direction, before we move further,” he added.
Maldives President, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom was equally emphatic that SAARC required reforming. He said that “SAARC has to widen its areas of cooperation to match the expectations of the peoples in the region”.
SAARC members agree on “reform” but differ on the desired outcome. Barring India, all others, especially Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka want China in – as a countervailing force to India. SAARC may be neither India-centric nor India-driven but is, in the view of these members, India-dominated. With China on board, these countries assume that the balance of power would shift in their favour.
Many arguments have been advanced for keeping China out of SAARC. Chief among these are that SAARC would become a ground for conflict rooted in complexities of the rivalry between the two rising powers India and China, and that China is an authoritarian state, not a democracy.
The latter argument has no merit because the prime mover of SAARC was Bangladesh’s military dictator, President Gen Zia-ur-Rehman; and, at inception, SAARC had two dictatorships (Bangladesh and Pakistan), two monarchies (Bhutan and Nepal), ‘authoritarian’ Maldives, India and Sri Lanka.
India vs. China
Indians opposed to China in SAARC also cite strategic and security concerns, including China being Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” and its policy of “encircling India”. Regardless of merit, these need to be reckoned with because such thinking cannot be wished away.
Those rooting for China point out that given its growing economic, trade, political, security and strategic interests in South Asia, its admission in SAARC would benefit the region. India should ignore irrelevancies such as SAARC being a “democratic order” and “China is East Asian” (not South Asian), and arrive at a decision based not on fear and anxiety but on the strength and confidence of a rising power.
SAARC observers, as Prime Minister Manmonhan Singh said, are “civilisational neighbours and economic partners”. Keeping this in mind, India should take the lead in talking to China about the latter’s role in SAARC. Such a dialogue would send a different signal to SAARC members who are expecting to capitalise on the perceived Sino-Indian rivalry.
*Shastri Ramachandran, an independent journalist based in New Delhi, is on editorial board of IDN. He was senior editor with the Global Times and China Daily in Beijing. A version of this article first appeared on February 24, 2014 on Daily News and Analysis (DNA) under the headline China in SAARC: Time to weigh the pros and cons and is being published by arrangement with the writer. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 25, 2014]
Image credit: SAARC
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