By Shivaji Sarkar
It is aggression beyond borders. Chinese moves are calculated to outdo India. It has virtually captured ASEAN and now through Pakistan wants to strengthen its presence in the Indian sub-continental market known as SAARC.
The game had started at Addu in Maldives, where China increased its presence and has been successful in replacing some Indian companies in the infrastructure and some other sectors in Maldives.
The last SAARC summit held at Maldives in 2011, under the then prime minister Manmohan Singh, saw poor Indian diplomacy failing to resist secret Chinese hands in the draft of Addu the 20 point declaration that adopted the declaration to “undertake a comprehensive review of all matters relating to SAARC’s engagement with Observers, including the question of dialogue partnership”.
The previous government could not prevent Chinese machinations in the sub-continental issues. Pakistan, in many ways emerging as a vassal of China, has carried the mission further at Kathmandu to seek elevation of China and South Korea to either a full member or a dialogue partner.
The SAARC has nine observers – Australia, China, EU, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea and US.
Even Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajpaksa wants greater engagement with observers, an oblique reference to China, with Sri Lanka is not only having trade links but even military ties. Sri Lanka has granted Chinese state-owned companies operating rights to four berths at the Hambantota port.
Having lost grounds to Chinese lobbying at Addu, in reality, the SAARC has yielded to it further by accepting at Kathmandu that observer countries of SAARC may be engaged in “demand-driven priorities”.
It paves way for further Chinese incursion in a 1.6 billion-strong South Asian market and by its trade and maritime interests in the Indian Ocean. It should be a concern as it impinges on India’s efforts to create ‘make in India” and increase its trade.
It appears Pakistan has played its card well not only to play for its ally China but also use the forum more for political purposes in stalling two agreements on road and rail connectivity. Its reluctance to come on board also signalled its persisting resistance to India expanding its economic engagement with Afghanistan.
While transportation of goods and passenger by road between India and Afghanistan through Pakistan is opposed by the associations of truck and bus operators in Pakistan for the fear of losing business, the difficulty arises from strategic calculations of blocking India from emerging as a competitor to Pakistan in Afghanistan.
In reality, even Pakistan granting the most favoured nation (MFN) status to India is rhetoric. Trade engagement with Pakistan remains at a low level. The formal trade between India and Pakistan has increased from $ 144 million in 2001 to $ 2.7 billion till early 2012. It is a mere 0.09 per cent of India’s total trade and 0.99 per cent of Pakistan’s.
India wants the sub-continent to be the connecting point between the East and West, including Central Asia. Pakistan wants to resist it and for now has been successful by blocking the rail and road connectivity proposals.
Such a refusal makes it slightly difficult for prime minister Narendra Modi to make South Asia a viable economic counterweight to China and limit Beijing’s role in the region. Regional integration would happen “through SAARC or outside it”, Modi warned the summit, if the grouping failed to agree on the pacts.
Despite a free trade pact since 2006, trade among South Asian nations makes up five percent of their total trade. They share few transport and power links. India has increased its transport linkages with Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and even Pakistan despite its resistance.
China, free of the baggage, has built ports and sold weapons across South Asia, where its new Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank has attracted interest, including from India. Through Pakistan, China suggested it play a larger role in the regional grouping, but Modi has prevented it for now.
It needs to be glossed how SAARC could become more effective link in the region as ASEAN has become in south-east Asia. Pakistan is surviving on anti-India sentiments. It could not be allowed to block integration of the region.
It calls for a new Indian diplomacy to engage the countries of the region through flow of investments and financial arrangements. Modi has made a beginning by involving Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan. He has to look at Sri Lanka and Maldives also and integrate Myanmar into the regional bonding. It is the hope for largest populated region having the highest number of poor people.
Modi expressed the concerns as he asked “Is it because we are stuck behind the walls of our differences and hesitant to move out the shadows of the past?”. Modi understands the region needs the association to counter terrorism, though this too was stalled by Pakistan, and ameliorate the conditions of the people, grerater people-to people link through forming a regional economic community in the coming 15 years as declared in Kathmandi.
The Kathmandu Declaration, which the summit produced, lists a lot of other lofty goals like developing a “blue economy” (ocean-based economy) for the region, monitoring cyber crimes, good governance, reinforcing cultural heritage, universal health coverage, and food security. Western observers are circumspect as also happy because it makes the region dependent on others. Modi has to provide the leadership to create feeling of oneness among the people of sub-continent and fight their battle together.
Sharing of electricity through a regional power grid has achieved a bit of the objectives of creating a common interest that is like to bind the countries together. The agreement has isolated Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif to an extent.
The region’s “acchhe din” could not be a pawn in the hands of Pakistan and China. Modi has to steer the people through intensification of regional contacts and subtle diplomacy to achieve the goal. It requires multi-tasking through a slew of measures and engagement at all levels including economy and security to bring the rest of SAARC minus Pakistan closer.