By Trilok Sharma (KATHMANDU, 3 March) – The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), one of the most non-functional and divided regional organizations, has headed in the January last week of this year towards one more uncertainty and difficult time after India openly attempted to block the appointment of Pakistani diplomat Amjad Hussain Sial as the next Secretary General. In Saarc troubled history, this was the first time that the rotation basis appointment of General Secretary had been halted. Despite India’s obstructions senior Pakistani diplomat Amjad Hussain B.Sial assumped office of the Secretary General of SAARC on 1 March 2017.
India did so, in response to last year September Pakistani-based group attack to one of its military camps in Uri in the Indian-administered state of Jammu & Kashmir in which 19 Indian soldiers got killed. This became a good excuse for India to withdraw from the 19th Saarc summit which was scheduled to take place in Islamabad in November. Later, Pakistan had to postpone the summit after other four Saarc members joined India led boycott campaign. As Nepal was in the role of Secretary General, it was lucky enough to get opportunity to put itself in the middle.
This is not the first such incident but one from the big list of such incidents that has plagued Saarc progress since its establishment. And, on doubt this trend will continue as unlike European Union (EU), Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other regional organizations, Saarc charter mandates not to discuss bilateral issues on the forum and all decision of the regional bloc must be made unanimously.
Now, after more than three decades of formation and nowhere going journey, both rivals India and Pakistan has clearly understood that it is not possible to address their security, economic and infrastructure development needs and issues by just clinging to all time lack luster organization Saarc. Better to search other alternative options which they are already working on.
Under India’s architect and initiative Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal (BBIN), a sub regional body also known as the South Asian Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ) was formed in May 1996 and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in June 1997 with aim more or less similar to SAARC with the concept of regional cooperation in a different manner.
Interestingly, both of these regional organizations are grouping of India’s favorite countries minus Pakistan. But sadly, none of these two are functioning as expected in the beginning and have succeeded in attaining global attention as Saarc. The only reason is India’s weak leadership mainly because of inadequate reserve capital to invest in infrastructure development and connectivity projects in the member countries.
Like India, Pakistan too is exploring the possibility of creating a greater South Asian economic alliance including China, Iran and the neighboring Central Asian republics to counter India’s bossiness in Saarc. For this Pakistan believes its ongoing mega project- China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as the key economic route linking South Asia and Central Asia.
This ongoing game on both sides clearly signals that neither India nor Pakistan is serious about Saarc future. They are resolute to make Saarc a tiger with no claws and teeth and a suitable regional platform to test their protracted rivalry.
Fed up of Indo-Pakistan ‘tit for tat’ game in Saarc, the foreign affairs pundits of other member countries have already started to suggest their government better to make endeavor in bringing China to this regional platform to revitalize and make Saarc vibrant rather than searching other alternative options of cooperation in the region.
In last year December regional seminar entitled “China in South Asia- South Asia in China” held in Colombo, a capital city of Sri Lanka, most of the intellect participants stressed the need of hour of inviting China on Saarc board elevating its status from observers.
China is world’s second largest economy and a major global power. And, now with the United States new President Donald Trump’s decision to step down from ‘globalism’ to ‘nationalism’ with slogan ‘Make America Great Again,’ China’s geopolitical and economic clout is intensifying at rapid pace in absence of strong opponent.
Compare to India, China has massive reserve capital and is massively investing in infrastructure development throughout the world. To make this job more easy, China has already established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which has come in operation in December of 2015.
Of all eight Saarc nations, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan have already received investment or concessional loan of more than one billion dollar. Bhutan has India to take care of its security and economic concerns. Sadly, it is only Nepal which has been ignored by both India and China when it comes to investment and economic growth.
As China has already spread its economic and geostrategic tentacles in most of the Saarc nations, foreign affairs experts of region seem in no mood to make delay anymore to give Saarc full membership to China and make cash-strapped Saarc robust as EU and Asean.
Till date Pakistan in every summit is lobbying for Saarc full membership to China. And, India is standing against this proposal. But what if India gave green signal, will then China really join Saarc provided the condition that Saarc charter prohibits unilateral decision and all the decisions for bloc need to be made unanimously.
China after joining Saarc has to hear and respect the voice of small countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka. For China, this will be as troublesome and irritating as wild elephant which gets captured and pushed forcibly inside narrow jute sack. India on the other hand is certainly will not allow China to do any business in this platform which could benefit it less and challenges its traditional influence in the subcontinent. Thus, another ‘tit-for-tat’ game will start with one player old and one player new, replacing Pakistan.
Even after being out of Saarc, China is already making strong presence in South Asia using different tactics and strategies- President Xi Jinping announcement to offer 10,000 scholarships, training opportunities for 5,000 youths, exchange and training programs for 5,000 youths, and to create 5,000 Chinese language tutors for South Asia in the next five years at the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi, in September, 2014 during his three-day official visit to India.
During his speech President Xi also pledged that China will closely work with South Asian countries to increase bilateral trade to 150 bn dollars, raise its investment in South Asia to 30 bn dollars, and provide 20 bn dollars in concessional loans to the region in the next five years.
And, now China is exactly doing what it has promised for region welfare. This has made Saarc nations more positive towards China. This is helping China a lot to slowly and gradually with no noise to increase its influence among Saarc nations and push noise making suspicious India at distant.
This ongoing activities in the region is a clear indication that though China has kept South Asian nations in its priority and wants to cooperate closely in different aspects but not by entering in Saarc and directly challenging its regional competitor India rather by bolstering bilateral relations with targeted nation and doing the job peacefully.
Sharma is executive member of Nepal-China Mutual Cooperation Society (NCMCS).