When the eight leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) met in Kathmandu, Nepal on Wednesday, the undercurrent was one of one-upmanship and the atmosphere underscored the truism that there is no altruism in politics.
In sharp contrast to the mood of solidarity that prevailed at the inauguration of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May this year, with all SAARC country leaders or their representatives present, the air at the summit venue in Kathmandu was heavy with sparring and shadow boxing. So much so that some even wrote off the summit as a flop even before it ended today.
It is mutiny on board. Sri Lanka’s former President J.R. Jayewardene’s warning, perhaps, has come true.
Addressing the inaugural SAARC summit in 1985 in Dhaka, he said: “We are setting this ship afloat today. There may be mutiny on board, I hope not.”
This week’s mutiny on the SAARC ship was a direct result of the souring of relations between South Asian nuclear rivals, India and Pakistan. In recent months, the two countries have been exchanging fire across a ceasefire line that divides the disputed territory of Kashmir. Pakistan refused to endorse India’s proposals for regional connectivity and a common power grid, while, much to India’s chagrin, there were also moves by Pakistan to bring in China as a full member or a special status observer state.
Shaken by Pakistan’s refusal to sign the deals, Modi -- in a clear message to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, who was sharing the head table with him at the Kathmandu summit -- said the countries in the region would deepen bonds, “through SAARC or outside it, among us all or some of us.”
Pakistan said it could not agree to the road and rail connectivity agreements proposed by India because his country’s internal processes were incomplete. Pakistan agreed to the power grid pact after a Sharif-Modi handshake yesterday at the retreat.
Who said SAARC was about regionalism? It is more about realpolitik aimed at promoting one’s national interest. SAARC was born out of fears and worries that South Asia’s small countries had over India’s geopolitical ambitions in the Indian Ocean region. They managed to tie India up with the concept of regional cooperation. India was not unaware of this move but it saw a greater benefit by being in SAARC. As India had envisaged, SAARC became a forum dominated by India a mere few years after its inception.
The move to promote China’s entry as a full member is an attempt to change the India-centric outlook of SAARC. Pakistan fully supports the move. Of course, Sri Lanka will not say no to China’s membership in SAARC, given the special relationship the two countries enjoy especially under the present government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Questions may be asked whether China is a South Asian country. Geography is not a key factor that decides regional cooperation. Even if it is so, China can claim that it shares a common border with five SAARC nations – Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan
It was not for nothing that the Asia Pacific Daily, published by the Xinhua news agency’s Kathmandu bureau, brought out a 12-page special edition for this week’s SAARC Summit. At least three Nepali cabinet ministers and two former foreign ministers supported Beijing’s call for full membership.
Thus Nepal which has been receiving millions of dollars in Chinese aid for development work is not averse to China’s membership.
With Afghanistan, the Maldives and Bangladesh noncommittal, opposition to Beijing’s entry comes from only India and Bhutan. India opposes it because of fears that it will lose its primus inter pares position while Bhutan, a satellite state of India, does not maintain diplomatic relations with China because of a territorial dispute. However, for China to enter SAARC, the consensus of all member states is required. Thus the question of China’s full membership may be on hold, but Beijing will keep on knocking at the SAARC door until all members agree to open it. If India can work with China within BRICS and become a partner in the new China-led Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank, there is no reason other than India’s ambitions to play the role of South Asia’s policeman for it to oppose China’s membership.
“We value the role played by SAARC and stand ready to elevate our partnership with it so that together we can play a greater role and contribute constructively to the region,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, this week before deputy foreign minister Liu Zhen left for the Kathmandu Summit. China says it is ready to spend US$ 30 billion on infrastructure projects in South Asia.
Questions may be asked whether China is a South Asian country. Geography is not a key factor that decides regional cooperation. Even if it is so, China can claim that it shares a common border with five SAARC nations – Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan.
Beijing backers also argue that SAARC could benefit from China’s economic growth and the grouping could extend its trade links to Central Asia and the Asia Pacific region via China. Also if China is given full membership, the Indo-Pakistan issues that stymie SAARC’s growth can be overlooked and the South Asian group could make progress.
Some 29 years after the first summit in Dhaka, SAARC has not seen much progress in the key area of economic cooperation. Even eight years after the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) entered into force, trade among member states amounts to a pathetic five per cent.
Raising the living standards of its teeming millions living in abject poverty is the key goal of SAARC, but the grouping cannot claim with a sense of pride that South Asia is somewhat better off today than what it was in 1985 because of SAARC.
Areas of cooperation are many, but few real benefits have trickled down to the grassroots level or made an impact on the day-to-day life of South Asia’s 1.8 billion people, for whom this week’s SAARC summit is a non-event. Until they saw on TV screens their leaders addressing the summit, they did not know that there was a summit in Kathmandu. The hope and faith the South Asian people had in SAARC in the initial years are unheard of today.
With a SAARC identity or South Asian solidarity being largely part of political rhetoric, SAARC’s role has been greatly diminished and the annual summits are just a platform for talks between its leaders.
The bottom line is that after 29 years, SAARC is nowhere close any regional integration. Let’s not make any comparison between SAARC and EU, ASEAN or even Mercosur, the Latin America’s success story.