SAARC SPECIAL-2: People-To-People Contact Works Well

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By Nihal Rodrigo*

COLOMBO - At the inauguration of the 16th SAARC summit in Bhutan in 2010, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya stated that, “in a spirit of equality and mutual benefit”, China is willing to conduct dialogue and exchanges to expand practical cooperation with SAARC. He particularly mentioned human resources training, poverty alleviation, disaster relief action, economic affairs and media exchanges.

Chinese bilateral cooperation in all these activities is already proceeding with many SAARC countries together with other economic activities: For example, infrastructure connectivity both locally, as in Sri Lanka; as well as for international east-west connectivity across the Indian Ocean.

Without disturbing the bilateral aspects, which are important in their relation to the specific needs of individual countries, SAARC-wide programs need to be pursued by China as well. The contributions made to the SAARC Development Fund by China and helpful facilities for trade promotion in Chinese Fairs and Exhibitions are examples in this regard.

Broad Participation


All these areas of regional interaction and exchanges need to be developed within the parameters of the SAARC Charter with no dissenting voices from among the eight member states. These need not affect bilateral engagements of individual SAARC states with China. Consultations with the SAARC Secretary General will also provide excellent means to work out region-wide cooperation.

In dealing with a major SAARC priority to enhance economic development in the region, in addition to cooperation between the SAARC Governments and China, corporate entities such as the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI) and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT) play a major role which can be enhanced.

The Memorandum of Understanding for Development of the China-South Asia Business Council as a Mechanism for Cooperation signed this year between the SCCI and the CCPIT, is a priority action already initiated and developing. Here, too, engagement and consultations with the SAARC Secretary General would also be worthwhile.

Exchanges with South Asian regional economic research organizations, universities, and institutes of policy studies, are essential for China to obtain a direct, first-hand, in situ perception of the development necessities of South Asia.

In June 2011, the 6th China-South Asia Business Forum was held in Kunming through SCCI and CCPIT cooperation. Sri Lankan Prime Minister, D.M. Jayarathna said on the occasion that “China and South Asian countries can bring about visible change in the global economy through the promotion of cross-border trade with mutual trust, and seize enormous untapped opportunities”. He emphasized the priority in exchanges in science and technology, energy, agro-business and the tourism sector as well as more Chinese investment.

Tariff Help


The trade volume between China and South Asia increased from around $25 billion in 2005 to $80 billion in 2010. One major priority, and what one hopes is a possibility too, is to enhance the South Asian component in exports to China. Balanced trade exchanges would require China to consider certain tariff concessions and other incentives to SAARC countries in the mutual long term interest.

Greater opportunities and favourable conditions for promoting South Asian exports at Trade Fairs is also essential. Those held in Kunming and Kashghar in Xinjiang have demonstrated their effectiveness.Government-to-government exchanges on various ramifications of globalization are proceeding and need no specific comment.

At UN and other international Conferences national delegations from South Asia continue consulting with each other and with China.

The Boao Conferences in which most South Asian countries have participated provide scope for interaction, and indeed being kept aware of diverse world-wide perceptions on various aspects of current developments.

Non-Traditional Threats


Contemporary developments also include diverse non-traditional threats which affect particular regions. Terrorism that crosses borders is one such devious threat which virtually all SAARC countries need to overcome. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in which Sri Lanka is a Dialogue Partner and some other SAARC countries are Observers alia, deals inter alia with what China calls the Three Evils of Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism.

The Indian Ocean region in which SAARC is placed, is particularly vulnerable to security threats. Some dangers have an additional sinister dimension in their often hidden links with non-traditional security threats including people-smuggling, drug-trafficking, gun-running, cyber fraud and piracy.

Front Groups


Many of these aspects are linked to regional, and even international underworld criminal cartels which support terrorist groups for their causes as well as for their own profit. They have, for example, links with the residue of the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which have re-branded themselves to be sanitized as “legitimate liberation groups”. Even Chinese vessels close to Sri Lanka’s coast were once attacked by the LTTE some years back, causing a heavy death toll.

Uighur separatist groups have their front organization, the so-called 'World Uighur Congress' like the rump of LTTE supporters’ and their 'Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam'. The LTTE, according to an intelligence group outside Sri Lanka, even provided intelligence to the pirates of the Somalia’s coast, on the contents and value of ships plying the Indian Ocean.

Pirates are now being pushed away into the central areas of the Indian Ocean due to increased vigilance and security off the eastern African coastal areas. In consequence they have recently attacked, kidnapped for ransom and even killed fishermen from three SAARC countries, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

These are aspects that need to be dealt with, including through cooperation with China which is also affected in the Asian region, given the Asia-wide, and even global collaboration of criminal cartels. SAARC has a number of legal instruments against terrorism which could enhance their application to engage Chinese cooperation as well on this common threat.

Personal Touch


Finally, mention must be made of people-to-people contact between Sri Lanka and China as directly known to this writer: The largest quantum of financial assistance we received, internationally, in the wake of the tsunami of December 2004 from the People, as distinct from Governments, was from the people of China.

This was partly due to a cultural link which engaged the people. Xu Jing Lei, one of China’s most popular film actresses, after visiting Sri Lanka in the wake of the tsunami, agreed to be Sri Lanka’s Honorary Ambassador for Tourism.

Her appearance at fund-raising events organised by the Sri Lanka Embassy, and her personal appeals to the people of China, to assist Sri Lanka’s recovery from the tsunami, helped immensely not only to increase the number of Chinese tourists visiting the country (exceeding that of Japan) but also to raise the voluntary contributions from Chinese people to the tsunami recovery fund set up in the Sri Lanka Embassy.

Some of the examples of cooperation – bilateral as well as SAARC-wide – already experienced or underway might seem small steps, given the magnitude of the development challenges that confront the region. But, as Lao Tzu wisely pointed out, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

*The writer, a retired Sri Lanka Foreign Service officer, was Secretary General of SAARC, Foreign Secretary, Sri Lanka, and Ambassador to China. He was Coordinating Secretary for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at Sri Lanka’s permanent mission to the UN during the country’s chairmanship of NAM.[Global Perspectives]

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