The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SSARC) is a virtual recreation of the bitter rivalry between two nuclear powers — India and Pakistan. Its 19th summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016 was postponed following the Uri attack and there is deep uncertainty where the next summit will be held.
As the fate of SAARC is in limbo, there have been academic deliberations on the prospect of China joining the regional body. In December last year, a regional seminar entitled “China in South Asia – South Asia in China” was organized in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where foreign affairs experts from SAARC member states offered their insights into the imperativeness of China’s membership to the SAARC. It was one of several academic efforts to highlight the synergic impacts arising from the close cooperation between China and South Asia, which are the home to 40 percent of the global population. China and South Asia combined represent almost 12 percent of the world area, 26 percent of armed forces and three of the world’s recognized nuclear powers.
China is already an observer of SAARC, and its entry into it is expected to give momentum to economic development in the region.
“Geographical, historical, cultural and economic factors make it necessary to induct China into the SAARC, thereby giving new impetus to the regional body,” said Dr MP Lohani, former Nepalese ambassador to Bangladesh.
Dr Lohani, who participated in the Colombo workshop, said that five SAARC member countries – Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bhutan and Afghanistan – share a border with China and that this geographical proximity serves as rational grounds to invite China to join SAARC.
SAARC nations and China have historical and religious bonds. Both are the home to ancient religions that have existed and interacted since time immemorial. Buddha, known as the Light of Asia, was born in Nepal and obtained enlightenment in India, and his philosophy and knowledge spread to China. Collaboration between the pristine trans-Himalayan civilizations will undoubtedly usher in a new era of China-South Asia relations.
Economic cooperation, trade and investment are other vital areas where China and SAARC can work together. Although India is a key player and an economic powerhouse among the SAARC members, it has failed to cough up enough money to build infrastructure in the region, which has the largest number of people living in abject poverty. This is a reason why the regional bloc fares badly compared to other similar organizations around the world.
China has recently focused on building massive infrastructures along its southwest for better connectivity, and SAARC’s recent decision to start trains service from Pakistan to Bangladesh via India and Nepal creates great potential for enhancing China-South Asia economic cooperation.
Poverty is the biggest problem in South Asia, and SAARC has called for its eradication. China has achieved tremendous success in lifting millions of people out of poverty in the last 35 years. The Chinese experience can be highly helpful in achieving similar gains in the SAARC.
China is the world’s second largest economy and a global power. It has huge foreign reserves and is massively investing in infrastructure in different parts of the world. The cash-strapped SAARC is in the dire need of money to tap into its natural resources. China’s entry will undoubtedly bring dramatic economic changes to the region and the life of its people.
“China-South Asia relations are economically and diplomatically significant, strategically vital and political crucial,” said Dr Sambhuram Simkhada, Nepal’s former Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva.
Situated between the two large economies, Nepal enjoys tremendous potential as a transit point for trade, tourism, investment, transport and communications. “Nepal can be a manufacturing hub with the Chinese investment if China joins the SSARC,” asserted Dr Lohani.
China wants stability in its neighborhood. It can be stable and prosperous only when there is lasting peace and economic development in the adjoining nations.
China has been constantly saying that its rise is peaceful and poses no threat to neighbors and the world. In this context, a quote from a Western scholar is relevant. He says: “The Chinese apparently never plundered and murdered unlike the Portuguese, Dutch and other European invaders of the Indian Ocean later.” This assertion makes different between China and other colonial powers that ruled the roost in the past.
Therefore, countries like India need not harbor unnecessary anxiety about China’s entry into the SAARC. If China and India work together as SAARC members for the advancement of the common cause of the region, this will change the face of region, boost its international status and transform it into a global force to reckon with.