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SAARC: China has too many proxies

Ravi Dutt Bajpai, c3s Paper No.2083

The summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) held at Kathmandu in Nepal will be remembered more for its failures and disputes rather than for any significant milestones. The eight member strong South Asian association has struggled to keep two of its largest members India and Pakistan on the same page. This summit was an ideal opportunity to introduce fresh impetus into the association, with the advent of the new leadership in India and Afghanistan.However, the constant bickering between India and Pakistan hijacked the agenda of the summit, sadly Pakistan decided to adopt a recalcitrant attitude and obliterate any prospect of substantial cooperation. In the absence of any constructive multilateral agreements on big-ticket items, the member states were compelled to seek bilateral agreements with each other. The lack of major resolutions did not imply that the summit was without its customary drama, as several of the SAARC members openly advocated the elevation of China from an observer to a more influential status. China has sent its Vice Foreign Minister to make representation at the Kathmandu summit, however, it seems there were already too many Chinese proxies at the SAARC summit to work assiduously on behalf of China.

It must be underlined that despite the deification of SAARC as a panacea for South Asian regionalism, SAARC suffers from serious structural problem, these problems stem from the political-strategic compulsions that led to the creation of SAARC in the first place.In 1980’s, the then military dictator-President of Bangladesh Ziaur Rahman pushed for the foundation of a South Asian organization to form an alliance of smaller states to contend with the major regional power i.e. India. As the biggest state, India continues to have an overarching presence in this organization, India assumes SAARC to be its pocket borough while the other members view India’s approach as domineering. The colonial history of British India rule over the regional states already casts a long shadow on the regional power dynamics. The contemporary relations between Indian and other regional states are marred by lingering land and maritime border conflicts, disputes with water sharing and support for insurgency in each other’s territories. The smaller regional states view China as a neutral but powerful benefactor and an appropriate counterweight to Indian influence in the region; at the same time China has been cultivating these South Asian states to contain India’s growing profile.

China was inducted into SAARC as an observer in 2005, currently there are eight other observers Australia, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mauritius, Myanmar and the USA. Among the nine observers at SAARC, China itself seems to be very keen to take up full membership of SAARC and has been working with its South Asian allies to gather support for such a move. It can be argued that out of the eight member states of SAARC, six states will support a bigger role for China in the association; India and Bhutan are the two exceptions. The South Asian states are in desperate need of major investment to initiate large-scale infrastructure development, improve regional connectivity, and seek larger volumes of trade. An interesting trivia about the Kathmandu summit is that even the host venue was built with the help of Chinese funds. China has developed strong collaboration with most of the SAARC member states in their defense, infrastructure development and the economic activities. During the Kathmandu summit, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan were discussing the possibility of full membership for China. In a perfectly orchestrated campaign Chinese official news agency Xinhua published a special issue to mark the SAARC summit in Kathmandu and quoted several serving and former Nepalese ministers advocating full membership for China. The Chinese foreign ministry used Xinhua’s publication as a launching pad for announcing China’s intentions to ‘elevate its partnership’ with SAARC.

The votaries of greater Chinese involvement in SAARC have offered several reasons such as; the lack of organizational effectiveness, China’s growing economic and strategic links in the region and to broad bases the membership of the organization. To claim that SAARC as a regional group has been an underachiever in itself is an understatement, while the scope of conflict resolution among South Asian states is very limited, SAARC has failed to achieve any significant trade and economic integration in the region. The never-ending delay in the implementation of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) is a stark reminder of the lack of commitment in the region even for economic integration. Including China within SAARC is no guarantee that the multilateral economic integration can be realized, most of the SAARC members already have very high volumes of trade with China and in almost all the cases the trade balance is heavily in favor of China. China has very close security and strategic relations with most of the SAARC members except India, Bhutan and Afghanistan; therefore these states do not need SAARC to facilitate their further integration with China. The idea of broad basing the membership is an attempt to dilute India’s primacy within the organisation. India’s size is often cited as a major impediment to the smooth functioning of the organisation, by that logic including a country of China’s size will mean adding a much bigger impediment to the effective performance. It can be argued that the China’s proxies in SAARC are also motivated by ‘short man syndrome’ and are driven by their sense of perceived injustices at the hands of India.

India may prevail in blocking China’s full membership in SAARC; however, India cannot prevent further collaboration between China and the SAARC members. As witnessed during the latest summit, the proxies of China will succeed in scuttling any attempts of meaningful regional cooperation even at the cost of their own progress. India will need to invest institutional, economic and strategic resources much more generously and purposefully with its South Asian neighbors, the strength of these bilateral relations will lead to multilateralism in SAARC. Finally to create a more peaceful and cooperative neighbourhood, India will have find means to address the ‘short man syndrome’, and that is a tall order.

( Ravi Dutt Bajpai is currently pursuing a Masters in International Relations at Deakin University, Melbourne. He is associated with the Institute for Post Colonial Studies in Melbourne and is a regular social and political commentator with the Hindi daily, Prabhat Khabar, published from Bihar and Jharkhand. With expertise on China, India and Australia in world/Asian politics, he is a regular commentator on Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in Hindi in Australia. Email id: )


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