SAARC SUMMIT : CHINA’S ROLE WILL BE KEENLY WATCHED BY THE SOUTH ASIAN COUNTRIES
While the 18th SAARC summit meeting at Kathmandu on November 26-27 is focused on regional integration and counter-terrorism, China’s behind-the-scenes role will be keenly watched by the South Asian countries.
China had become an observer at the Dacca summit meeting in 2005 pushed through by Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh but resisted by India, Bhutan, Afghanistan and Maldives.
Several Chinese have cited geographical contiguity, trade and political interactions, historical links to the region as the basis for the membership desire in the SAARC. It attended four summits so far. While China raised this issue in 2008 and 2010 summit meetings, the 2011 Addu Summit insisted that “institutionalisation process” and firming up of the SAARC identity should first take place before the membership is opened further.
China had proposed the SAARC+1 (China) initiative much in the format of the ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and South Korea). China’s ancient strategy of hexiao kongda [cooperate with the small countries to counter the big] had been implemented in South Asia to counter India. With the Silk Road initiative, while China had been suggesting to its economic/commercial nature, apprehensions still remain in New Delhi about China’s meddling in the region.
China had sent its foreign minister to attend the 14th summit meeting at New Delhi in 2007. For the rest of the other summit meetings, it had sent only a junior minister. China’s officials steered away from controversy, however, by raising soft issues such as poverty alleviation, disaster relief, training programmes in human resources development, infrastructure and energy, and hosting seminars.
China today is the largest trading partners for many a South Asian country. It has a free trade arrangement with its “all-weather” friend Pakistan and about to conclude similar treaty with Sri Lanka. China’s trade with South Asia has increased substantially from $5.7 billion in 2000 to $93 billion in 2012, with China’s imports from the region increasing from $ 1.9 billion in 2000 to $ 22.6 billion in 2012. However, more than half of China’s trade with SAARC countries is with India – in 2013 reaching to $66 billion.
To promote trade with SAARC, China is showcasing Yunnan rather than restive Xinjiang. The China-South Asia Business Forum was established in 2004 with the initial meeting focusing on “Communication, Cooperation, Development and Mutual Benefits” in December that year at Kunming.
Two years later, China-South Asia Business Council was established as a link between nearly 40 Chinese companies and SAARC chambers of commerce and industry. In June 2013, another initiative – China-South Asia Exposition began at Kunming with Bangladesh as the theme country for that year.
However, China’s investments in the region are paltry – cumulatively about $4billion in SAARC countries, although last week it announced an investment of $45.6 billion for economic corridor with Pakistan. Also, China’s financial contribution to the SAARC process is negligible, with $300,000 for the SAARC Development Fund, although China has over $4 trillion in foreign earnings, including from SAARC countries.
The writer is a professor in Chinese Studies, JNU
NOVEMBER 26, 2014