SAARAC observers cut India to size

By Kashinath Pandit

For the larger sections of domestic print media, 28-29 April SAARC summit’s main highlight was seventy-five minute one-to-one talk between the Indian and the Pakistani prime ministers, the first encounter after Sharm al Shaykh. Of course other subjects were also discussed in the ritualistic sessions and fuller account of deliberations may or may not receive coverage in due course of time.

Whether the meeting between the two traditional adversaries will bear results different from what these usually are is anybody’s guess. But Pakistani media and spokesperson not chanting Kashmir mantra as vigorously as they are wont to, hardly bring any solace to the weird Indians incapable of handling Pakistan at such levels. 

Embattled in war on terror in Af-Pak region, the US has pitted her long time ally against the diehard religious legions of its own creation. She has poured enormous dollar booty into Pakistan’s kitty and refurbished her arsenal with latest conventional weaponry to bolster Pakistan’s penchant for an edge over Indian military might.

Finding the US too willing to do more for her, Pakistan found it a rare opportunity of raking up Kashmir issue; she clubbed it with the war on terror syndrome. In theory, Holbrooke may be the special envoy for AF-Pak but in practice he has made it sufficiently clear to the Indians that they will have to go in for a deal on Kashmir as part of over-arching US-Pak deal on war on terror. US diplomats have been shuttling between Washington and New Delhi in the hope of pushing Kashmir deal with their counterparts in New Delhi and elsewhere. Simultaneously, more infiltration bids have been made   along the LoC in J&K as well as international border to intensify pressure on India, which would not retaliate except a low key expression of disappointment with Pakistan. At the same time continuous strikes and shut down calls given by the separatists is another pressure point efficiently exploited by the actors. In the midst of this pressure mounting tactics comes at close heels the barrage of statements of local Kashmiri leadership in power or out of power to come to terms with Pakistan over Kashmir.

Washington is frantically looking for securing largesse for her traditional ally in the sub-continent.   Kashmir is very much on her radar now than ever before.  Through the instrumentality of its think-tanks supplemented by local moles in Indian bureaucracy and media, the US has been floating through different chapters like PUGWASH various propositions for the solution of Kashmir issue. The recent meeting of the two prime ministers at Thumpa is part of the process, and both Washington and Islamabad feel India is not that reticent about a climb down in Kashmir.

 Pakistan’s astute diplomacy succeeded in making Kashmir dispute almost integral to the ongoing fighting in AF-Pak region. India failed to convince Washington that Indo-Pak acrimony has far deeper roots and ramifications than just the dispute over the territory in Kashmir.

Cognizant of the fact that SAARC is hardly equipped with teeth sharp enough to foist a solution of Kashmir dispute on two contesting parties, the US and Chine decided to work in unison to formulate strategies if their influence and role are to deepen in South Asian region. New Delhi shies away from reiterating 1994 unanimous resolution of the Indian parliament on Kashmir issue.

SAARC has eight members as of now, namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. In addition, it has seven observers, Iran, European Union, Japan, South Korea, Mauritius, Australia and Myanmar. The US and China, too, have joined the observer group.

The 25th session of SAARC was more than routine summits that happened in the past. It was the first summit meet after the formation of US-China Sub Dialogue on South Asia, a formation that brought senior representatives from the two countries to Thumpa for more than normal assignment.

Formation of the Sub Dialogue two-member Group for the region signifies that two major world powers have agreed to discuss and revaluate security and developmental scenario in the region from the prism of their national interests in international strategies.

After the conclusion of the 25th session of the SAARC at Thimpu, Chinese vice Foreign Minister Wang Gvangya and US Assistant Secretary of State Robert O Blake Jr met at Beijing.  Both were present as observers at the 25th session in Thumpa.
 
Interestingly, no other observer member, not even European Union and Japan, would be invited to the session of the Sub Dialogue in Beijing. This shows that the two hegemonic powers consider South Asia their exclusive preserve with other observers not having the capability or logistical advantage to propose policy changes and lay road map for resolution of conflicts or formulation of strategies.

How the policy planners in Washington look at the SAARC minions is reflected in a comment made by the spokesman of the State Department. He said,” the SAARC summit was nothing terribly earthshaking: one of a number of important structures that you have across the broader Asia region. We think they’re important. We encourage them …the secretary [Hillary Clinton] is committed to strengthen the United States’ ties to other structures like ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. This is an indication of our ongoing and deepening commitment to the region.” He was actually repeating the words of American representative Robert Blake.

But against Blake’s understatement about h is reaction to the 25th SAARC circus, the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang was advertantly more communicative because he had a message to convey. Anybody with good understanding of Sino-Indian rivalry in the region, and the Beijing-Washington nexus in formulation in a different structure, shall have no difficulty in reading between the lines of Wang’s message. He stressed Beijing’s desire to “elevate friendly ties” with the SAARC to “a new level”. He viewed SAARC in ideological terms, as a forum where “China stands together with developing countries”.

Responding to SAARC summit’s focus on climate change, China called on developed countries to provide financial, technical and capacity-building assistance to enhance the ability of developing countries to cope with climate change. Taking the first step in the direct so as to prove its commitment to the proposition, the Chinese observer-representative stressed China’s readiness for cooperation through bilateral channels and with the framework of South-South Cooperation. Wang responded to the SAARC summit’s focus on climate change by calling on developed countries to provide financial, technical and capacity-building assistance to enhance the ability of developing countries to cope with climate change.

“China is ready to strengthen practical cooperation with South Asian countries on climate change through bilateral channels and within the framework of South-South cooperation,” he said. Wang further assured that “on the basis and in a spirit of equality and mutual benefit, China is ready to conduct dialogue and exchanges and expand practical cooperation with SAARC”. He announced a contribution of US$300,000 by China to the SAARC Development Fund and invited the body’s senior officials [heads of foreign ministries] to a meeting in Beijing.

This is a clear and diplomatic indication that Beijing no more looks at SAARC as a formulation outside the ambit of its wider Asian and international strategy. Her careful but decisive indications are that she would make bilateral arrangements with the SAARC countries for development, response to regional and international imperatives and in the process to security and development of the countries that will fall within the influence of her strategic reach.

Furthermore, the Sub Dialogue formulation between China and the US indicates that China is willing to accommodate the US in South Asian regional strategies and let her play a role in consonance with Chinese interests.  No doubt the US has already been in picture especially in Pakistan since the decades of 1950s but that was to counter the Soviet influence at that point of time. The first and eloquent indication of China changing her stance and perception of South Asia came when Beijing-Islamabad combine contrived the elimination of Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Beijing had wriggled out of her reclusion in South Asia.

It is clear to the bi-party Sub-Dialogue group that India, the largest state among the eight member states of SAARC has not demonstrated pliability for befriending her close neighbours, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and even Bangladesh. In her handling of Afghanistan in pre and post Najibullah era, Indian diplomacy has been sordid and potholed. All this makes Beijing think that there exists a sort of vacuum which she in unison with the other super power is eminently qualified to fill without loss of time.

With terrorism, armed insurgency and perfidious Machiavellianism galore, Indian does not present a picture of prospective influential “big brother” in the region. Pakistan’s close ties with China beggar no description, and Sri Lanka and Nepal today are a totally different story. Indians tread these lands with utmost caution and reservation fearing a sudden collapse of their fragile relationship. In the more recent past, China has been responding with noticeable alacrity to the wishes and plans of these SAARC countries. This has been ably summed up by a political observer: “The hard reality is that the potentials of India’s economic cooperation with its neighbors – except Nepal and Bhutan which are recipients of Indian aid – remain far from explored and the emerging possibility is that China may come from behind and overtake India.  Unlike India, China places primacy on its immediate neighborhood in its foreign policy and as Wang displayed, Beijing has a definite action plan with regard to carrying forward the impetus of cooperation with its South Asian neighbors.”

It is true that on the face of it India-China relationship seems to be on the right track like trade, border talks, climate change etc. There are areas of mutual interest and understanding. But that is the way China has developed new contours of her philosophy of bilateral and multilateral relationship.  Chinese diplomacy is placing its accent on people-to-people contacts, including with India. The attempt is to repeat the phenomenal success China scored in the Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asian region by placing ‘’soft power” as a cutting edge of its diplomacy China is developing all-round cooperation with India’s SAARC partners in a structured way in the economic, political and even military spheres. Curiously, China has been quite effective in the use of ‘’soft power” too.

Six decade old Indo-Pak acrimony is manifestly making other SAARC member countries uneasy for they consider it a formidable impediment in the path of rapid development of SAARC and implementation of its policy and plans. This sounds very true and must not have lost the attention of both Beijing and Washington. In an extraordinary outburst at Thimpu, Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed bluntly demanded that India and Pakistan should “compartmentalize” their mutual animosities and allow regional cooperation to gain traction.

The 25th session of SAARC at Thimpu is manifestly different from all previous sessions. For the first time China and the US, two observer countries have indicated their outreach to the region, something that is not offensive to many SAARC members. This puts before India a fresh challenge to her leadership in the organization and in the region. That Blake traveled from Thimpu to Beijing to confer with the Chinese Vice President is a significant result of SAARC session. New Delhi shall have to put its act together before much slips out of her hand. Her leadership in SAARC itself is becoming contentious.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University).

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