BRING CHINA IN SAARC
Although China is not a member of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), its relationship with the organization is incredibly intimate. Its geographical connection and ascending cooperation on economic, political and security sphere with the member states has lent substantiality to the organization.
Today the South Asian region and SAARC has grown amongst the most attention-grabbing organizations in the world. After its establishment in 1985, the organization received wide jeer and was named a “club of the poor”. As the organization achieved very little progress in the subsequent years, it got another infamous epithet of “slow-boat”.
Things have changed. Due to the increased geopolitical and economic significance of the region, SAARC has turned into a strategic platform for international communities, where eight countries are already the member states and nine are observers. Additionally, China, having the status of an observer till date, is eager to gain the permanent membership in the organization to obtain a more meaningful role.
This, however, is only one side of the picture. Two decades ago former US President Bill Clinton termed South Asia as the most dangerous place on earth to live in. Little has changed in subsequent years. Nuclear contention between India and Pakistan along with broad range of ethnic and religious conflicts and myriads of insurgencies in almost all member states has contributed to volatility of the region. Additionally China and India, possessing largest armies and expending huge budget into arsenal purchase, have militarized the region as a whole. Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and its spillover effect has posed great threat to the regional security.
Despite this, the world’s largest democratic region, due to its strategic significance, has drawn global attention. Its economic efficacy, due to India and China’s boom, has cast a spell to the world. Nearly 21 percent of the world’s labor force is accounted from this region. Most notably, the Indian Ocean, the economic bridge between the East and the West, through which more than 60 percent of the Middle East’s oil is annually transported, also lies within its maritime boundary.
Given this, China, the rising power of the new world order, joining the SAARC will contribute to the overall promotion of South Asia. If it happens, China’s growing strategic, geopolitical and economic influence will definitely uplift the entire subcontinent. Unfortunately, due to the lack of political interest, despite China’s keenness, the endeavor has remained uncertain till date. Past Indian leaderships’ skepticism regarding China’s presence in the SAARC with the fear that it will wane India’s influence in the region and their attempt to keep South Asia clear of foreign influences proved to be the major obstruction in inviting China.
But China’s support to her South Asian neighbors, especially in development works and security, has escalated in the recent years. Assistance into infrastructure developments like ports, roads and railways, international airports, oil pipe lines, factories, power plants including hydro and military hardware and trainings have helped them come closer to China, much to India’s suspicion.
In this present global geopolitical milieu, keeping China at bay would be political immaturity of the SAARC leadership. India shouldn’t forget that because of its wistfulness, its neighbors have been cozying up to China and their relationship is getting much stronger. Therefore, instead of thwarting China, it is wise to accept its partnership into the organization, which will not only strengthen the political, economic and social dynamics of South Asia but also immensely benefit India. This will also help redress India’s lopsided economic imbalance with China.
Another benefit of China’s inclusion into SAARC will be of maintaining regional security which is directly proportionate to the growing prosperity of India. Security of South Asia and Afghanistan’s insurgency are two interdisciplinary dynamics. Security pundits have predicted that after the withdrawal of North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s multinational forces from Afghanistan, Taliban insurgency will cause spillover effect in SAARC countries, especially in Pakistan and India, which in turn will jeopardize regional security as a whole.
The recent claim of US intelligence agency that the Al-Qaeda has announced the creation of a separate wing for India, perceiving incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government an enemy to Islam, also calls for the inclusion of China. An economically booming country like India cannot alone bear such a large scale threat.
China, being Afghanistan’s strategic partner, is also much worried about post-NATO consequences. The Chinese province of Xinjiang has been suffering from the separatist movements of Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) since late 1990s, which China considers a threat to national security. In this backdrop, maintaining regional security post NATO withdrawal period is a big challenge to South Asia plus China. From this aspect too, it is important that SAARC members should sit together along with China in a common forum so that they can collectively deal with the impending threat.
Definitely, time has come for SAARC members to disentangle themselves from their bilateral troubles and think of comprehensive benefit for the region. Today, when the world is shrinking smaller in the glory of globalization, it is not worthy to rule out any promising neighbor from regionalism, especially when the country is full of potential like China. If China, India and Pakistan can sit together in a forum like Shanghai Cooperation Agreement (SCO), why can’t they sit together in SAARC, the only regional organization of South Asia, which is getting more promising by the day?
South Asia has started to dream of better tomorrow with Narendra Modi coming to power in India. Indications are already there. By giving equal space to his smaller neighbors, Modi has already displayed the symptom of his generosity, wittiness and political maturity. His name will be carved with golden letters in history if he takes the lead and lets China join the organization not just as an ‘observer state’ but as a ‘permanent member’.
The author holds Masters Degree in Strategic Studies and Political Science
NOVEMBER 18, 2014