news_18th-saarc-summit-nepalSAARC began as a childish prank to corner the big boy in the neighbourhood. Gen Ziaur Rahman who conceived it and Gen Hossein Mohammed Ershad who hosted the first meeting in Dhaka both bore a baffling grudge against India. We were all allergic to India in South Asia, so we decided to join hands to deal with the problem together, Ershad said in a TV interview a decade after flagging off the seven-nation club in 1985.

The dramatis personae were as Ershad had described. Gen Ziaul Haq, president Junius Jayewardene, president Maumon Abdul Ghayoom and king Birendra who joined him at the inaugural session fitted nicely with the description of political allergens and allergies. Rajiv Gandhi, of course, had the king of Bhutan for a breakfast partner. Remarkably, India’s detractors had another thing in common. They were all traditionally at ease with the United States and China. That was how the diplomatic cookie crumbled in South Asia during much of the Cold War. India along with South Yemen represented Moscow’s interests in the Indian Ocean.

Somewhere down the road, Afghanistan was inducted as the eighth member of Saarc, obviously with India’s approval. However, President Ashraf Ghani was barely sworn in when he set off for China and Pakistan, the two countries that crucially flank him, and Saudi Arabia which bankrolled its anti-communist campaign and continues to have ideological interests way beyond its original brief in Kabul.

The Saarc leaders’ meeting in Kathmandu should ideally elevate China’s ties with the group. The Saarc leaders’ meeting in Kathmandu this week should ideally elevate China’s relationship with the group from its current observer status to a proper dialogue partner. Beijing wants this though even a full membership would be in order. After all, China and India share land borders with four Saarc member neighbours apiece. In fact, if we count India as its neighbour, China has land borders with five Saarc nations, one more than India. This is ironical.

Reports from Kathmandu suggest the move to invite China has again been vetoed by New Delhi. If true, India stands to lose and not gain from what will be seen as a suspicion of China as immature as the narrative of allergies with India that rather anomalously brought the cluster together. Is it time to grow up?

In recent years, India’s enthusiastic participation with China in the high-profile BRICS group has been matched by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s decision in Dushanbe in September to admit new members in Ufa in Russia next year. India and Pakistan are the leading candidates, which may explain the upsurge in the high-profile traffic between Moscow and Islamabad in recent days. There may be more than Russian helicopters on offer for Islamabad. On the other hand, Chinese President Xi Jinping had warmly invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the November APEC summit in Beijing.

Look any which way, it is China that holds the key to India’s peace of mind with its South Asian neighbours. Over the years, India has learnt to deal with some of the allergens that once distracted it, and its most intractable relationship in this sphere has been with Pakistan.

After the Kashmir issue was ready to be signed and sealed (if yet to be delivered) India had one remaining request to Pakistan – access to Afghanistan. As much as Pakistan, China can help here and, of course, the new Afghan leader who Mr Modi has spoken to only on the phone.

Kathmandu will offer India its first opportunity to figure out Mr Ghani’s thinking on India’s role in Afghanistan. Nuanced signals from China will be watched too given its heavy commercial and security interests in the crucial country. Afghanistan has significant deposits of cobalt, copper, gold, iron and lithium. After searching everywhere to secure the resources, Beijing has invested billions of dollars in two major Afghanistan-based projects.

]Yet China’s security concerns in Afghanistan could take precedence over even its economic interests. Beijing sees separatism by the Uighur Muslims as a major challenge to its internal stability. Any instability in Afghanistan will allow the Uighurs (the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as China knows them) to establish themselves in eastern areas where the Afghan forces lack presence.

Despite these apprehensions or perhaps because of them China has kept in touch with influential groups among Afghanistan’s Taliban. What is Mr Modi going to say to Mr Ghani about that, and what is he going to be told in return?

As the Indian leader and his advisors prepare to head for the 18th Saarc summit in Kathmandu, his home minister has again berated China with some verbal muscle-flexing. Mr Modi’s defence minister said no one could take on India any longer. (Well Sri Lanka just did, by picking up some more Indian fishing boats from the Palk Straits!)

While they grapple with South Asia’s history of mistrust and real or imagined allergies, Mr Modi’s advisors may wish to look over the shoulder. An 82-wagon cargo train left for Madrid last week from the Chinese city of Yiwu, signalling the efforts by China and Russia, to revive the ancient Silk Route, and shift the balance of power in Eurasia towards the East.

The train, which began its journey on Tuesday, will travel a distance of 10,000 kilometres, a report in The Hindu says, 741km more than the Trans-Siberian railway, the longest so far. Starting from Yiwu, a trading hub south of Shanghai, it will cover six other countries – Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany and France – before ending its 21-day journey in Spain.

Mr Modi’s dream of bullet trains to link India’s cities is laudable, but there may be benefit in opening the aperture a little. The train from China signals growing links among Beijing, Moscow and Berlin who all have been at each other’s throats in the past. It is time for South Asia to get out of the baby pool.


NOVEMBER 22, 2014



About Ehsan Abdullah

An aware citizen..

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