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Issue No.: 571 | January 2015
 

Why China Wants to be a Full Member of SAARC

Nitin G. Raut
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At the 18th SAARC meet, more than any tangible action, what resonated more was the call by Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan to upgrade China from its present observer status to a member.

The 18th South Asia Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) meeting in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu showed more weakness than its strength. The signing of a framework pact on electricity was a mere fig leaf to cover its shortcomings and salvage its prestige to showcase an achievement of sorts.

The asymmetry of the eight-member SAARC is unmissable. India is the largest state in this association with common land and maritime boundary with all except Afghanistan. India’s landmass is 70% of the entire SAARC Territory, with a population of 1.25 bn about 5/6 of the entire SAARC population. Its economy predictably outstrips even the rest put together.

SAARC was formed for the economic integration of the region but has made little headway. Unlike the European Union or NATO, it has no ideological cohesion or uniform political system of democracy. There is not just suspicion and unresolved boundary disputes but even absence of favourable bilateral economic and trade ties as a basis for multilateral economic union. SAARC even lacks a mechanism to resolve its major problem – the India Pakistan rivalry.

India and Pakistan are cotton exporting nations and together, with the cotton fabric industry of India and Bangladesh, can dominate the cotton garment industry in the world. Likewise India is the largest producer of groundnuts and together with the other cash crops of member states can command a good price in the world market. India and Sri Lanka as the largest producers of tea can make South Asia the hub for the Tea Exchange Centre instead of London where World Tea Trade & Pricing is determined.

In fact, at the 18th SAARC meet, more than any tangible action, what resonated more was the call by Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan to upgrade China to full membership from its present observer status.
Communist China as an aspiring global power knows the imperatives to have captive groups of Asian States especially East Asia and Pacific regions and subsequently extend its sway to South Asia and Indian Ocean Rim States. China is converting the proposal for road and railway connectivity to its strategic advantage. All this to effectively challenge the United States in Asia.
First, the SAARC Plan for rail and road connectivity is seen by China as a ready link for its road and rail network in Tibet. This will provide direct access to the Bay of Bengal and passage through India will be on a platter given the multilateral arrangement.

Strategically and multilaterally it is a security threat to India given the narrow corridor called ‘Chicken Neck’ separating India and Bangladesh, and perhaps when it becomes necessary China can even misuse the civil facility for military aggression.

Secondly by joining SAARC it will pursue an unrelenting policy of undermining Indian leadership of SAARC and misuse it to stall India’s emergence as an Asian Power.

Thirdly with the ASEAN, a confirmed ally of the USA, no pushover for China, SAARC with its internal contradictions, rivalry, border disputes and the India Pak standoff is sought to be exploited by China to further its hegemonistic designs in Asia and gain a foothold in this Asian Regional Bloc.

After 1962, India followed a dovish foreign policy on China and as a member of the Non-aligned Movement; India was just one among the many with no leadership role. It was only in 1991-92 when Prime Minister Narsimha Rao accorded de jure recognition to Israel that India Foreign policy blazed a new trail.

China in its quest for Asian hegemony has forced BRICS’ new Development Bank to be headquartered in Shanghai and is also leading the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank - both initiated by China to have monetary influence especially in Asia and promote its economic and strategic plans. By membership of SAARC it will acquire a political clout to dominate Asia. With its over $3000 bn reserves, it can make India irrelevant in SAARC (by doling out aid).

India should take the initiative for SAARC and ASEAN to have structured dialogue partnership on strategic issues and form an economic bloc that can counter China’s growing economic muscle. It is not a quick fix solution but can be a mutually beneficial co-operation to engage China and offset its hegemonic designs.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successful visit to Nepal and Bhutan were precisely to ensure that there is no scope for misgivings given the asymmetry in SAARC. But it is also an excuse for Pakistan to canvas for China’s membership to balance India. Given the frayed ties with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh they are only eager to support China’s membership and thereon lies both a challenge and an opportunity for India to assert itself. India will have to leverage its economic clout to rally SAARC members other than Pakistan, to create an interdependent economy which will pave the way to consolidate diplomatic and political relations.

China of course will not sit idle. It will cordon independent economic ties with SAARC members and Pakistan will play a willing Trojan horse to scuttle any Indian initiative for a deeper economic co-operation. At Kathmandu India just managed to ward off the issue of China’s membership.

It is to checkmate China’s diplomatic onslaught that Prime Minister Modi is going to hold a conference with twelve Pacific Island countries to forge close ties. In Fiji, for instance, Indians account for 47% of the population. Along with Australia and New Zealand it will provide a vital support base. The Pacific being contiguous to the Indian Ocean rim States, it will also enhance India’s maritime diplomacy. This also means the necessity for a modern blue water Navy. The regional power imbalance in Asia requires India to bolster its military strength and expedite economic reforms at home.

NITIN G. RAUT, a regular contributor to this journal is an advocate by profession.
Email: nitingraut@gmail.com

 
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