SAARC + 1
By Madhukar SJB Rana
The motive force behind the SAARC is the shared civilisation between its eight members. That being the case, the Charter precludes China as a member, which is a distinct civilisation on its own.
When South Asian regional cooperation was being conceived by the academics as early as 1977, led by India’s Dr Tarlok Singh, he had proposed Iran,too,as a candidate by dint of the Indus Valley civilisation.
So too, he proposed Burma as a member by dint of its common British Imperial history. We, four others representing national think tanks of Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, thought otherwise since these two peoples did not consider themselves geo psychologically to be South Asians.
Nonetheless, these academics conceived South Asia, geo politically, a territory lying South of the Hindu Khush-Himalayas and extending into the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. In short, it was to be confined to the Indian sub continent, as it is commonly known geographically.
From 1978 the initiation over South Asian regional cooperation was taken over by the President Zia of Bangladesh. He successfully convinced Bhutan,Nepal and
Sri Lanka to support his vision. These three countries are the ‘BENELUX of SAARC’,so to speak,to take an analogy from the history of European regionalism.
It did not take much for President Zia to convince King Birendra of Nepal since he had pronounced, at the Colombo Plan Meet in Kathmandu in 1977,that Nepal would like to see regional cooperation over the Himalayan rivers which should include China.
King Birendra’s vision and passion for harnessing the Himalayan resources regionally was crowned with the establishment of the International Centre for Integrated mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu in 1985. It is in this spirit that King Gyanendra sought the membership of Afghanistan, as proposed by India,contingent on China having an Observer nation within SAARC. It might be underscored here that Afghanistan was disinterested in SAARC having opted for Soviet style Communism and in near-total denial of its civilisational heritage during this period.
It is not possible at this juncture to have China as a full member simply because India is opposed to the idea and will veto it if push comes to shove. The other reason is that for once, after the Gujral Doctrine of 1996, and now under the dynamic leadership of PM Modi, does India visualize SAARC as embodying its strategic interest as a future global power. After all, the future of globalisation is grounded on regional blocs. And all the SAARC nations are driven by the belief that India, as regional leader, would best represent South Asian collective interests in the international arena.
Almost all other Indian PMs tended to believe that they could do without SAARC given the India-Pakistan grand divide over Kashmir: and the very low level of cooperation existing inter regionally, which was restricted to the lowest common denomination possible built around the quest for confidence building and garnering of mutual trust. India’s “Look East” policy enunciated by PM Rao in 1991 is clear proof of this hypothesis.
Ironically, as India ignored the SAARC and kept looking east, China began to look South West and developed strong bilateral relations with all of its South Asian neighbours, including Maldives and Sri Lanka. Hence almost all South Asian nations, except Bhutan and India, would support full SAARC membership to China. They tend to see China as an opportunity for the region and not a threat.
With the PM Modi keenly interested in leading the SAARC one expects SAARC to be engaged in many innovations compared to the past. One expects a dynamic trend from talk of ‘cooperation’ to ‘integration’ with a more devolved form of regionalism involving sub regionalism to include Indian states to be involved too.
We anticipate the revival of the SAARC Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ) along with other forms of sub regionalism in the south. In the North, we may anticipate closer integration of the southern Himalayan states of India with Bhutan and Nepal as the fragile Himalayan ecology is under threat from global warming and climate change.
Given all of the above factors and forces, the optimal modality for China, at this stage, is SAARC + 1. In this context, China now needs to think through and come forth clearly and specifically with its intended role in the desired process in the light of its policy to create a Trans Himalayan Economic Belt, revive the Silk Route by connecting Yunan with South Asia through Bangladesh and Sichuan and Tibet through Nepal, including the Maritme Silk Route engaging the ports in Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
(Professor Madhukar SJB Rana is a Former Finance Minister of Nepal)