By Iftikhar Gilani
India may have taken solace in effectively isolating Pakistan at the recently concluded SAARC summit at Kathmandu by forcing a reluctant Islamabad into inking pacts on energy cooperation. However, the hush-hush tones of certain countries to pitch in for including China as a ninth member in the regional grouping has left a bad taste in Delhi’s mouth. Though, stated by Nepal, officials at the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) are convinced that Pakistan has a part to play in the development. Chinese news agency Xinhua, later circulated a special bulletin with speeches made by Nepali leaders, upping the ante and distracting focus from the SAARC agenda.
Why may some countries want China in SAARC?
Sources here said Indian diplomats worked overtime in Kathmandu to produce a face-saver for prime minister Narendra Modi’s first South Asian summit, but not without leading to deeper engagement with observer countries, which is seen as an opening window for Beijing to use its financial muscle.
What do Indian experts suggest?
The situation has reached such a jumble that Indian strategists are now even suggesting that SAARC be partitioned to allow India to foster regional cooperation with countries on its eastern borders like Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and also Maldives. “The time has perhaps come to restructure, even partition, SAARC to make it more effective. This is something that might also be required to be done in the likely event that Pakistan fosters the Taliban in Afghanistan. Surely, a Taliban-run Afghanistan cannot be accepted as a member state of SAARC and chances are that Pakistan will continue to insist on its client state remaining in SAARC. This would effectively kill this organisation. Fortunately, an opportunity has now arisen to rethink SAARC and this should be grasp,” says strategist Sushant Sarin.
What happened in Nepal?
Those who worked behind the scene in Kathmandu said Pakistan had opposed three pacts backed by India — on energy trade, road connectivity and rail transport. When the matter was not resolved either at official and ministerial level, it was left for the heads of governments to resolve. “It took hectic two days to Indian diplomats to work quietly with other countries to nudge Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to accept at least one pact,” sources privy to negotiations told dna. The only agreement signed by the SAARC leaders will facilitate electricity trade between the countries. The other pacts — on road connectivity and rail transport — that union cabinet had approved last week for the Saarc summit were pushed back. They will be again deliberated by the transport ministers of the member states, who are meeting sometime in February next year. Next SAARC summit now in Pakistan in 2016 will pose a serious question again, as host may attempt bring in again the question of conceding greater role to China.
Will China in SAARC benefit region?
Former secretary general of SAARC Sheel Kant Sharma wonders, while the bilateral trade issues between India and Pakistan have held back Safta’s full potential, how can China’s entry remove the obstacles to full-fledged trade facilitation and reverse the dismal trend. China’s own trade with all Saarc members is heavily skewed and its promised investments on infrastructure are also not likely to balance trade. In contrast Japan has contributed over two decades nearly $16 million funding of SAARC activities and programmes, while China has so far given only $3,00,00. Observers believe the Modi’s focus on the neighbourhood, and his clear attempts to direct the course of SARC through his leadership, will face a stiff challenge in coming days, with Pakistan and China teaming up with smaller neighbours.