China’s push for SAARC membership: Anxiety for India


By Deepak Gajurel

Deepak GajurelThe ‘Sleeping Tiger’ seems awaken, at least in the context of Beijing’s relations with South Asian nations.

Chinese push for elevation from Observer’s status in SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) to a full-fledge member of this 8-member grouping has created a storm of uproar overshadowing the main deliberations of the SAARC’s 18th Summit meetings in Kathamdu, which begins here Wednesday.

As Chinese desire to become a full member of SAARC was first floated through media and experts, both Nepali as well as Chinese, and reinforced by Pakistan’s policy statement, made on Tuesday in Kathmandu, arguing in favor of elevating the role of observers in SAARC, India abruptly came forward to rejecting the proposal.

Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said, ‘We need to first deepen our cooperation within SAARC… there are so many shortcomings and we need to tackle them.’ He was quoted by Indian Express as saying, adding, ‘observers are peripheral… we will come to them at a later stage.’

This was a clear signal that India was not enthusiastic about China’s interest for full-fledged membership of SAARC.

India was surprised when China made top Nepalese politicians and diplomats to push for its membership into the organization.

While China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhen Min is leading the delegation to SAARC, interviews and quotes from at least three Nepal cabinet ministers and two former foreign ministers backing Beijing’s case have appeared in a 12-page special edition for the 18th SAARC summit, published by the Xinhua news agency.

Those who were pitching for China’s membership or an elevated role in SAARC included Nepal Finance minister Ram Sharan Mahat, Nepal’s Foreign minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey and minister for Information and Communications, Minendra Rijal.

The South Asian regional group currently has Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan as its members. SAARC also has nine observers – Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mauritius, Myanmar and the United States.

Since the 2007 New Delhi summit, Saarc observers have been invited to inaugural and closing sessions. At the next summit in Colombo in 2008, a moratorium was imposed on the inclusion of new observers.

While Sino-Indian rivalry adds yet another spectrum, in SAARC forum, it remains to be seen which shape it takes.

It’s worth mentioning here that the Chinese vigorous inroads into SAARC was initiated by Nepal King Gyanendra in 2005 during Dhaka SAARC Summit, when Nepal pulled China into this regional grouping as observer.

Though resisted by India in the beginning, Nepali proposal to bring in China into SAARC, supported by Pakistan, was finally got through when a ‘bargain’ was struck with Indian proposal to make Afghanistan eighth member of this organization.