SAARC SPECIAL-1: Priorities for SAARC-China Partnerships

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By Nihal Rodrigo*

COLOMBO – “Building Bridges”, the over-arching theme of the 17th SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit which was held in the Maldives on Nov. 10 and 11, was endorsed as an important goal for the association’s future orientation. 

The Addu Declaration (named for the site of the summit) welcomed the theme, and highlighted “the importance of bridging differences, creating better understanding and promoting amity and mutually beneficial and comprehensive cooperation in order to promote effective linkages and connectivity for greater movement of people, enhanced investment and trade in the region.”

This positive and inclusive approach provides the basis for increased two-way traffic, or closer cooperation, within the association itself, as well as with other nations including, for instance, regional neighbour China.

SAARC was established only in 1985, unlike neighbouring ASEAN, which began functioning in 1967. The delayed start-up was caused by territorial disputes and unsettled border issues, many of them the lingering legacies of the colonial period, as well as by perceptions of power disparities among South Asia’s states.

In order to deter open bilateral conflicts and to encourage practical regional economic cooperation beneficial to all, the SAARC Charter excluded “bilateral and contentious” issues from being taken up at its meetings. Decisions need to be taken on the basis of unanimity. When bilateral and contentious issues have arisen, they have even delayed summit meetings.

Pragmatic approaches now generally prevail and persistent bilateral issues, when they do emerge, are mostly dealt with by the countries concerned in close encounters of the quiet kind, not to disturb the potential for beneficial, wider consultations on regional matters of common concern.

With the enhancement of pragmatic regional confidence and interest in drawing on valuable external linkages, requests of outside states and organizations for observer status in SAARC have been sensibly managed.

Good Omen


The Declaration adopted at the 15th SAARC summit (Colombo, August 2008), following consensual approval, welcomed Australia, China, Iran, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mauritius , Myanmar, the United States of America as well as the European Union as Observers. SAARC “appreciated” their participation.

The summit also approved in principle Guidelines for Cooperation with the Observers, looking forward to working with them in the common pursuit of “a Partnership of Growth of the People of South Asia”, the theme of the Summit.

Revised guidelines for cooperation with Observers, that were subsequently approved, indicated the criteria for their participation as well as “modalities” for consideration of projects and their implementation. Financial contributions to the SAARC Development Fund (headquarters for which have now been set up in Bhutan) have also been approved and are being received, including an initial grant of $300,000 from China – a positive omen, no doubt, of potential further collaboration.

Strong Rationale


The theme for the summit in Maldives is an extension and elaboration of the theme of Connectivity which Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promoted. The programs of a regional organization, however practical, well planned and implemented they may be, cannot thrive or develop in solitary isolation, particularly now, given the globalization, both beneficial and baneful, currently in progress.

The Colombo summit significantly directed the SAARC mechanisms “to embody in their programs and projects, a strong focus on better connectivity not only within South Asia, but also between the region and the rest of the world”.

The Asian region, which includes China and India, represents well over a third of the total world population. Languishing bilateral issues, which have not disappeared, do surface between the two countries. However, the rationale for closer cooperation between the two is overwhelming, not only in bilateral terms, but also in terms of SAARC, the rest of Asia and the wider global picture.

Historic Changes

The United States National Intelligence Council (USNIC) produces for each four year period, a report which is a sort a sort of frank horoscope on the nature, characteristics and direction of the evolving global situation. The current report, entitled “Global Trends to 2025: a Transformed World” has projected the world moving into a period of “historic changes”, including the transfer of “global wealth and economic power, roughly from West to East”.

Its previous four-year survey had already anticipated SAARC’s India and its neighbor, China as “the powers that could transform the geo-political scenario”. From the USNIC report, this trend was popularized by Newsweek and other journals and has gained currency.

India and China recently celebrated the 55th Anniversary of the five Principles of Panchaseel that were originally enunciated as a confidence-builder in the context of an economic Treaty between them in 1954. These principles subsequently also provided inspiration for the Afro-Asian Bandung Conference of 1955 and the Non-Alignment Movement established in 1961.

Manmohan Singh and his counterpart China’s Premier Wen Jia Bao in 2008 signed what they called “A Shared Vision for the 21st Century”. In this document, they accepted “a significant historical responsibility” to ensure “comprehensive, balanced and sustainable development in Asia and the world as a whole” -- one avoiding “drawing lines on the grounds of ideologies and values, or on geographical criteria (which are) not conducive to peaceful and harmonious development”.

This has augured well for SAARC-China engagement in that India some years back had reservations on external linkages being considered by SAARC.

Seven E’s


The China-India nexus is now being widely analysed, discussed and written about in academic and think-tank circles – sometimes in confirmation, or in contempt or cynicism and sometimes with nervousness as well.

However, the fact remains that there is a strong rationale and confidence within SAARC to reach out beyond the sub-region, to China and the wider world beyond, as well, considering the global changes and challenges affecting South Asia. The major areas of change could be conveniently categorized as the Seven “E”s: Economy, Environment, Ecology, Energy, Emigration, Extremism and Extra-national threats.

The priorities and possibilities of SAARC working together with China in dealing with many of these convoluted, interconnected aspects need analysis. We need to engage frankly on the priorities and practical possibilities in SAARC-China consultation, cooperation and collaboration. Deliberations within countries can be valuable forums through which recommendations for our Governments to take into consideration can emerge.

The China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), in collaboration with Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS), has already held an event involving SAARC countries and China, with some government participation as well. Recommendations from that “encounter” were forwarded to the host country of the 15th SAARC Summit (in Colombo) which found them useful. Other such symposiums, such as that held in Yunnan last July can maintain the momentum of interest and productive analysis.

A Journey Begun


In 1999 China’s former Deputy Foreign Minister, Wang Yi (now a senior political figure in Chongqing) visited the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu to discuss China-SAARC relations.

Subsequently, Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies and the CIIS co-organised conferences in China and Sri Lanka to develop the relationship before China became an Observer in SAARC.

Whatever consensual understandings are reached at exploratory deliberations need to be conveyed to the governments concerned. The current Secretary-General of SAARC, Uz Fathimath Dhiyana Saeed, who is a Maldivian herself, has visited capitals of the SAARC countries to consult with them prior to the current summit.

The 2010 summit in Thimphu welcomed her appointment particularly in view of ongoing initiatives in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment through regional cooperation.

That summit also decided to establish a South Asia Forum, within the SAARC’s formal process, for the “generation of debate, discussion and exchange of ideas on South Asia and its development in the future”. It is also to function through “public-private partnerships” and include eminent personalities of diverse

The first meeting of the South Asia Forum which explored the subject “Integration of South Asia: Moving Towards a South Asian Economic Union” took place in New Delhi in September 2011, and some of the ideas generated will no doubt influence the ideas exchanged at the summit in the Maldives.

*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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