The 13th Saarc Summit, which took place in Dhaka in 2005, took two landmark decisions—it welcomed Afghanistan as a member and agreed in principle, for the first time, to welcome China and Japan as Observers. The Summit had decided to engage with Observers in collaborative endeavours in accordance with Saarc’s Charter, objectives, and priorities.
But it was only during the 14th Summit, in 2007, in New Delhi that Observers were invited to participate in the inaugural and closing sessions and a number of Observers, including China, Japan, the US and the European Union, officially inducted. The New Delhi Summit gave further credence to the role of Observers in Saarc, stating, “The region will benefit from these external linkages and help its economic integration with the international community.” It also decided to include Iran as a new Observer.
The next Summit, held in Colombo, inducted two more Observers—Australia and Myanmar—but issued a moratorium on the admission of any new Observers. Furthermore, Saarc began to give thought on how to remain engaged with its Observers, preparing a guideline for cooperation that the heads of state and government approved. This guideline, however, was not implemented fully. Since then, Observers like China, Japan, the US, and Australia have made a number of proposals for mutually beneficial cooperation, some of which are already under implementation, according to a senior official at the Saarc Secretariat.
The China factor
Not much happened at the 2010 16th Thimpu Summit, besides thanking Observers for their active participation. But there was soon a new twist to developments. With China’s inauguration of its residential mission in the island country of the Maldives just ahead of the 2011 17th Saarc Summit, a new model was proposed by some member states, called the ‘Saarc +1’ fixture. “We decided to forward the proposal to the highest level as soon as it landed,” recalled a Nepali diplomat who was present when the Chinese proposal arrived in Addu City. China, whose strategic and economic footprints were already evident across South Asia, has a similar arrangement with the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).
For the first time, Saarc came up with a declaration that pledged “to undertake a comprehensive review of all matters relating to Saarc’s engagement with Observers, including the question of dialogue partnership, before the next Session of the Council of Ministers in 2012.”
China’s inclusion as a dialogue partner in Saarc was prominently discussed in India, rather than in other member states. Indian strategic affairs expert C Raja Mohan once observed, “India’s smaller neighbours, for example, want to see China play a larger role in the economic development of the region and take active part in the Saarc process...Delhi’s own strategic instinct has been to limit the role of China in Saarc.”
With pressure from some member states, where China’s prodding was obvious, Saarc began to brainstorm just how to engage with Observers and a new policy guideline was prepared. “Let’s see the Observer’s commitment and level of engagement first. Then, we will take a call on its elevation in Saarc as dialogue partner,” said a senior Nepali official who has participated in various Saarc meetings.
A natural interest
Ahead of the 18th Summit in Kathmandu, the inclusion of China as a dialogue partner was again being widely discussed. However, we have not received any official request or proposal from China, said the official. “Negotiations are ongoing for some countries to be allowed to take part in dialogue, along with gradually elevating them to associate members in phases. Some kind of concrete role should be given to a country like China, which has long been associated with Saarc at various levels. But it is up to the Saarc foreign ministers and heads of state and government to take a call.”
“There is no doubt that China is seeking a strategic role in Saarc, which is quite natural,” opined former foreign minister Bhekh Bahadur Thapa. China borders five Saarc nations and as such, particularly since the mid 2000s, South Asia has witnessed a wave of Chinese assistance in roads, communications, energy, bridges, and ports. China has even surpassed a few traditional donors to the region in terms of extending financial assistance. The country has been organising an annual South Asia trade fair in Kunming, a regional hub that has deep links with the region, to boost inter-country trade. Several sub-regional cooperations are under consideration and China is the largest trading partner for some South Asian nations, including India.
“With or without Saarc, China has been investing in South Asia for long, which means its interest goes beyond the Saarc process. Though officially there are no proposals as such, the language of some Chinese think-tanks suggests that China is seeking an active and strategic role,” said Thapa.
The Chinese interest goes further. In 2000, China applied to be a dialogue partner in the Indian Ocean Rim Association, where India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh are members. It also proposed membership in the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA), where the afore-mentioned nations are again members. Since 2013, with the election of a new leadership, China embarked on a sweeping plan to revive its old land and maritime Silk Roads, connecting South Asia, the rest of Asia, and some parts of Europe.
But behind the curtain, it is common knowledge that it is India that is holding back Chinese inclusion in Saarc, which India sees as falling under its sphere of influence. “Economically, Indians are hugging China, but politically, Indian want to keep them at a distance,” said Thapa.
Taking things forward
Recently, a Washington, DC-based think-tank, The Center for Strategic and International Studies, observed that the primary internal factors affecting China’s influence and interests in South Asia were the state of the Chinese economy and the development of China’s western regions, principally Xinjiang, but also Tibet and the southwestern province of Yunnan.
According to an observation by Nishchal Nath Pandey, director of the South Asian Study Centre, China and the EU are the most active observers in Saarc. “They have done a lot and can do a lot more for Saarc,” he said.
Given its tardy history, Saarc needs to accomplish a lot to move ahead. Mutual suspicions among member states, especially India and Pakistan, have not helped. South Asia also remains the least integrated region in the world, lacking connecting roads, rails, and airways, in addition to cultural, trade, and people-to-people barriers. In fact, Saarc has yet to take off. The time has come for Saarc to rethink its operation modality, including talking security, political, and strategic matters, strengthening its Kathmandu-based Secretariat, and bringing more stakeholders from across Asia on board.
In this process, it may need more substantive and serious dialogue with its Observers. Once there is a solid foundation and strong ties among member states, the role of Observers will be all the more effective. A clumsy approach, which has been indicative of the Saarc process, will not help the organisation move forward. Next year, Saarc will be 30-years-old. For any regional grouping, 30 years is enough time to evolve.