In response to the perception that Pakistan would be a major hindrance in pushing through Indian sponsored connectivity plans for the South Asian region within the SAARC forum as was later proved in the Kathmandu Summit of SAARC held in November, 2015, a spate of sub-regional initiatives were launched such as Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in 1997 which comprised members such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, BCIM initiative in 1999 to establish an economic corridor between Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar and BBIN initiative in 1997 between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal.
These initiatives particularly aimed at connectivity of power, transport and infrastructure within the region. These initiatives were viewed with even more urgency in New Delhi once Chinese footprints expanded in the region and were considered vital in providing alternatives to China’s OBOR and Maritime Silk Road projects. However, these initiatives proved themselves fledgling due to lack of leadership, resources and institutionalization. Former Foreign Secretary of India Krishnan Srinivasan remarked that members of BIMSTEC not only represented uneven economies with differing interests, absence of China – the biggest Asian economy would slow down the initiative due to lack of investments.
Sub-regional initiatives also did not figure as a priority area for members and these lacked institutionalization. For instance, it took 17 years for BIMSTEC to establish a permanent secretariat in Dhaka in 2014. Similarly, BCIM remained a Track II initiative for India till 2013 despite the rhetoric as to the perceived importance of sub-regional groupings. BBIN initiative which was in cold storage for a long time was activated following India under Modi’s leadership failed to push through the Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) in the SAARC Summit in Kathmandu. It has also proved a delayed and ineffective exercise as Bhutan failed to endorse India’s connectivity plans finally withdrawing from the agreement.
It is being increasingly realized with China’s launching of ‘OBOR’ and given the growing interests of most of the South Asian countries in Beijing’s infrastructure development and connectivity plans, the scope for India-led sub-regional cooperation within South Asia has shrunk considerably.
Despite rhetoric and frequent use of the semantics of sub-regional cooperation from the Indian side, these initiatives have not received due attention and momentum, political and territorial security issues still plague SAARC and there is a growing Chinese economic influence in the region. Strengthening SAARC would be beneficial to all the South Asian countries. and militancy in the region can be discussed without the present hindrance which can camouflage many issues as sensitive bilateral issues.
Implications of Including China as A Dialogue Partner
Inclusion of China as a dialogue partner into the SAARC framework would help in discussing concerns related to Beijing-led regional infrastructure development and connectivity projects and address several issues related to terms and conditions of loans, benefits for local economy and sovereignty concerns of countries in the region. India’s outright rejection to get involved in ‘OBOR’ initiative has not able to prevent its small neighbors from collaborating with China. Rather, a framework for discussing the implications of this mega project for the regional economy would be helpful and SAARC can provide such a broad regional forum. India can express its security concerns related to the project and discuss how Indian and Chinese initiatives would become complementary rather than competitive. Chinese inclusion as a dialogue partner would provide the only way to bring in Pakistan to discussion table.
Common concerns like terrorism can be brought to Chinese notice by all the South Asian countries for discussions and it is possibly the only country with massive clout in Pakistan which can be used to exercise influence and push Islamabad to mend its ways. China has shown its willingness to get involved in SAARC process since it became an observer in 2007. Massive resources at its disposal can be used for strengthening SAARC once China is allowed to play a greater role within the framework.
Beijing’s preference for a mediating role in recent years as witnessed in its attempt to broker peace in Afghanistan between the Afghan government and the Taliban and between Bangladesh and Myanmar on the Rohingya refugee issue demonstrates China’s increasing political capital in the region which can be helpful for South Asian countries to sort out their differences which India cannot alone do because of ‘big brother’ syndrome attached to it. It is noteworthy that India’s preference for bilateral engagements which was fostered on the underlying assumption that the regional security architecture needs to be suitable to its security interests helped create a ‘big brother’ syndrome in the neighborhood despite its unilateral concessions many times. China’s inclusion in the regional organization as a dialogue partner might help institutionalizing a monitoring mechanism to oversee Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) between India and Pakistan ensuring peace along the Indo-Pak border.
It would also help discuss many of the security concerns related to illegal movements of people, drugs and militancy which are most of the times bypassed under the rubric of sensitive bilateral issues.
India has been able to persuade other South Asian countries in placing a 5 year moratorium in 2015 preventing discussions on the issue of China’s inclusion as a dialogue partner let alone full member.
Currently, as an observer, China cannot initiate any proposal nor can it participate in discussions and deliberations within the forum. India believes that inclusion of China would lead to Chinese veto (given all the decisions within SAARC need consensus for their approval) on India-led initiatives within SAARC.
However, China’s inclusion as a dialogue partner does not grant it a veto rather this will raise possibilities to bring in Chinese economic and political capital to strengthen SAARC. As SAARC is mostly dysfunctional with paltry and symbolic success to its credit, Chinese inclusion as a dialogue partner can be considered.