China in SAARC: a Feasible Option?

Md. Mizanur Rahman

There has always been debate on the issue that whether China should be included in South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). The debate was started, basically in the beginning of 21st century when China showed keen interest to be a part of it. Pakistan is the key proponent of inclusion of China in SAARC and urged to provide China a full fledge membership in 18th SAARC summit. Nepal also intends to bring China in the region and so does Bangladesh. Nepal’s Prime Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai had publicly spoken the need for bringing China into SAARC and has vowed to create Nepal as a meaningful bridge between China and India. Prof. Imtiaz, the leading scholar of Bangladesh said, “China should be given full membership as it is the largest trading partner of the SAARC member-countries”. But India shows continuing reluctance to provide space to any other economic giant in the region.

It is interesting to note that the scholars engaged with the issues of regional integration are also divided among themselves on the issue of extending the membership of SAARC to China. The major opponents include Sujit Dutta, Moonis Ahmar, Smruti S. Pattanaik, and S.D. Muni, while prime proponents are Nishchal Nath Pandey, Shen Dingli, and Dr. Chintamani Mahapatra. According to Indian expert of Chinese studies Prof. Sujit Dutta, countries willing to counter- balance India want to include China at SAARC. He deems China as not being eligible to be a full member of ‘a cohesive, secure and integrated democratic political order in South Asia’. He adds that China’s membership at SAARC will jeopardize the South Asian regionalism, as China is the world’s largest authoritarian state and aids authoritarian regime thereby bars democratization. Besides, Moonis Ahmar argues that although China shares borders with South Asia, culture and historically it is alien to the region, hence, it should not be included in the region. Furthermore, S.D. Muni holds the uneasy relation between India and Pakistan has affected the SAARC’s success while Pakistan bars the development of SAARC by ‘terrorism as state policy’, and India being reluctant of SAARC established BIMSTEC excluding Pakistan. India’s reluctance is understood when it is seen that SAARC is not even mentioned in India’s grand strategy or foreign policy vision documents, policy statements of ministers, and election manifestos. Therefore, the inclusion of China into the SAARC process would further complicate the process.

In contrast to that, Smruti S. Pattanaik, one of the proponents of bringing China in SAARC provides very valid argument: “I don’t think it is prudent to call China an ‘outside power’; they are also making in-roads in South Asia just like India has begun implementing its Look East policy. China has good relations with each of the SAARC countries, and its trade volume and interactions at all levels with all countries of SAARC have been increasing. In fact, for the bilateral trade to reach $100 billion, Nepal could be developed as a transit state in between the rising economic giants of Asia. Increasing connectivity between North India and Tibet via Nepal will prove a worthwhile venture for Indian goods to make use of the Shigatse Lhasa Golmud railway straight into the Chinese mainland. India should show its strength and demonstrate confidence as regards China’s entry into SAARC instead of fear and anxiety. After all, if Afghanistan could become a member without an amendment of the SAARC charter, so can other countries such as China and Japan, with whom all countries of South Asia, including India, enjoy good relations”. Dr. Chintamani Mahapatra argues that if China is invited to join SAARC and Beijing agrees to do so, the profile of SAARC will change overnight in the international political economy. This organization will be respected for having the world’s two fastest growing economies, the two most populous countries and the two most significant players in the politics, economics and security affairs of the largest continent of the globe.

However, as per my own analysis, China’s joining in SAARC will make the organization more functional. First of all, the balance of power will be ensured. The smaller countries of SAARC often regard India as a hegemonic power in economic and political terms. The countries are suffering from an inferiority crisis because of India’s giant economy and its political engagements of neighboring countries. Already sort of balancing has been introduced, for example, when Pakistan proposed China’s name as an observer of SARRC, India, all of a sudden, to balance it, proposed USA as an observer too. Secondly, if China is included in SAARC, the region will appear as one of the important regions in the world and will able to grab the maximum benefit from the international forums and agreements. The bargaining power will enhance many folds. Prof. Imtiaz Ahmed rightly argues that if China becomes a full member, SAARC will have more bargaining capability in relation to the global trade and politically also it will help ease the rivalry between India and Pakistan.

Finally, I strongly argue that Chinese inclusion in SAARC will be helpful in ensuring stability in the functioning of the organisation, the Chinese plan of promoting economic development, peace, stability and cooperation can certainly be useful for SAARC. Most importantly, the issue of China’s admission to SAARC should not be held hostage to Indo-Pak rivalry.

In conclusion, from the arguments raised above, it can be rational to state that bringing China in SAARC as a full fledge member, rather than the present observatory state which is passive in a sense, will be beneficial for the region, particularly for the small states. It will bring political balance, economic stability and above all, it provides a comparative advantage in bargaining that the region will achieve in different international treaties and agreements. In other words, the region will emerge, as one of the important and powerful regions in the world and SAARC will be more functional.

Md. Mizanur Rahman Teaches at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science and Technology University, Dhaka.