EDITORIAL: Welcome new blood to anaemic SAARC
On the eve of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Dhaka, Indian foreign secretary Mr Shyam Saran had “every reason to believe that by the end of this SAARC Summit, Afghanistan would have been welcomed as a new member of this organisation”. Dhaka also heard other voices recommending the entry of China into SAARC as a “dialogue partner”. It is said that SAARC leaders will respond “positively” to China’s wish to develop closer ties with the grouping. New memberships require consensus among the old members, but if India and Pakistan agree, as they most probably will, SAARC may see its first welcome expansion. The rumour is that Japan would also like to be included as a dialogue partner. That too should not upset anyone in South Asia.
If there is concern among some members that “instead of expanding the group, emphasis should be on coordination amongst the existing members”, one can convincingly point to the almost inert nature of the regional organisation. It needs new blood to get it going and extra-regional presence in the shape of dialogue partners might shake the South Asians out of their myopic internecine worldview. If any state needed to protest at the new entrants it was India which dominated the organisation with its numbers and economic power and undeniable political traction among the lesser “peripheral” states. But it seems to be keen to let in the Asian economic giant China, with a population that matches India’s, as a dialogue partner.
Pakistan should have no problem with that, nor should the other member states. SAARC had become a congregation of moaners moaning mostly about their bilateral disputes with India. India in the centre was therefore the wrecker with its obsession with status quo. Some of the complications that existed between India, on the one hand, and Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, on the other, were related to these states’ relations with China whom India never failed to set up as its nuclear rival. Taking China in as a dialogue partner — which relationship could change into a full fledged one if China finally gets its gas through pipelines from South Asia — means a change in the balance of power in the region. It benefits Pakistan because SAARC will no longer be a venue where India would tacitly deploy its “security concern” about China’s incursions.
Pakistan as a rule should have no objection to expanding the notional boundary of South Asia to include Afghanistan. History tells us that it was once coextensive with India, some times because Indian rulers exercised suzerainty over it; and at other times because of a reverse Afghan rule over parts of India. Pakistan is a very important neighbour of Afghanistan because of the transit trade that is the lifeline for Kabul, and because Pakistan is a lower riparian state with regard to the Kabul river. In futuristic terms, both Pakistan and Afghanistan are transit territories for the world’s trade with Central Asia where the energy resources are said to be concentrated as the world becomes increasingly energy-starved. Pakistan has readied itself for this transit function by building its port at Gwadar; it now simply has to give transit rights to India’s land trade with Afghanistan to become a trade grid. And, above all, the “Pakhtun factor” in Afghanistan binds Pakistan closer to Afghanistan than any other South Asian state.
SAARC members are also discussing the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) whose first agreed foundational document must be signed by January 1, 2006. Needless to say, this deadline will not be met if the member states, and particularly India and Pakistan, are still stuck in the conflictual paradigm. Once a paradigm shift is achieved problems linked to the territorial status quo will gradually disappear. Free trade areas tend to make territorial disputes irrelevant, and one hopes that that would happen here too. The 52 border enclaves disputed by India with Bangladesh, the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan and India’s sensitivity to Nepal’s relations with Beijing, will gradually subside in the face of the convergence of the economic interests of the region and the need to resolve new emerging disputes relating to trade rather than territory.
If India wants China in, it clearly indicates a change of mind in favour of trade. The symbolism emanating from this acceptance of China distances India, and of course China, from the enduring spat they have had over their borders. India accuses China of occupying 38,000 square kilometres (14,670 square miles) of territory in Kashmir while Beijing lays claim to 90,000 square kilometres (34,750 square miles) of land in Arunachal Pradesh, virtually the entire state. India got over its conflictual paradigm with China by conceding that territory lost in Aksai Chin was not “strategically important”. Over the years, it has taken steps to normalise relations with China significantly enough to profit from China’s burgeoning market.
Pakistan has much to learn from the India-China model of growth after the two reformed their economies. In 1978, at the inception of its reforms, China’s per capita GDP (in constant 1995 US$) was $148, whereas that of India and Pakistan in the same year was $236 and $260, respectively. Seven years after it began its reforms, in 1986, China caught up with India in per capita GDP terms ($278 vs $273) and, a decade after reforms in 1988, was comfortably ahead of India with a per capita GDP of $342 compared with India’s $312. In the first post-reform decade, the Chinese economy grew at 10.1 per cent while the Indian economy grew at 5.7 per cent in the corresponding post-reform decade (1990s), but bursting forth to eight percent in the latter part of it. In the said decade Pakistan — doing its tragic “covert” jihad — did much worse. SAARC is the arena where South Asia can stage its long overdue paradigm shift. The expected new blood will make it easier. *