China has in the past too attempted to push its case through Srilanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. India which constitutes 80% of SAARC economy has been strongly resisting China’s SAARC overtures.
The latest round of Chinese lobbying comes through Nepal. Several Ministers of the Nepalese cabinet have expressed overwhelming support for the Chinese cause. China also announced an investment of over $8 million for development of Northern districts of Nepal bordering the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Most member states had supported China’s bid to secure an observer status. It suits other SAARC countries to play China against India to neutralize India’s natural advantage of size. With its diplomatic clout, China as a full fledged member of SAARC, will render most member states as its proxies to contain India.
Pakistan and China share a strategic bond designed to contain India. Nepal and China too partner with each other for infrastructure, food, education and defense procurement. Chinese investment in Nepal in the fiscal year 2012-13 went up to $174 million, three times higher than the $55 million in the fiscal year 2011-12, and on the verge of overtaking India’s FDI in Nepal.
There are various competing ideological and strategic differences that have kept SAARC from achieving economic integration of the South Asian economy. SAARC charter does not allow bilateral issues to be taken up at the SAARC platform. This has ensured continuing deadlocks acting as millstones for any comprehensive economic partnership or integration. Historic issues between India and Pakistan have contributed in undermining SAARC. If China, which shares its borders with 5 out of 8 member states of SAARC and has issues with Bhutan and India, were to join the association as a full fledged member, SAARC will get further weighed down by internecine conflicts of two strong members. China has thriving trade relations with South Asian countries. Joining SAARC as a full fledged member will only give China a strategic handle in the region to further its ‘contain and encircle’ policy towards India. Such divisions also give a handle to smaller member states to arm twist the conflicting giants for their own advantage.
In a characteristic high decibel visit to Nepal in August this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave $1billion as concessional line of credit to help Nepal with HIT – highways, information technology and transmission lines for electricity. In less than three months, the return on investment comes in the form of Nepalese support for Chinese membership in SAARC. In terms of its long term impact, this gesture by Nepal is more shocking than Chinese incursions in Sikkim when Chinese President Xi Jinping was on a visit to Gujarat in September.
China certainly is not becoming a member of SAARC overnight, but this move by Nepal is proof of the misadventures of India’s foreign policy doctrine in the region. If we reduce our Foreign policy to a mere talking shop, soon there will be no buyers left. The historic mandate received by Narendra Modi led NDA should serve as leverage for India to show some muscle in Kathmandu this week, unlike the photo ops so far in the name of foreign policy.
When Afghanistan became a member of SAARC in 2005, member states stipulated on Afghanistan to hold free and fair elections. China’s acceptance of territorial integrity of India and Bhutan, the unresolved issue of Tibet will have to be some of the important pre conditions for any further move on China to be a member of SAARC.