India Blocks China’s Attempt to Take Over South Asian Group

In late November, New Delhi blocked Beijing’s attempt to gain membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives, and Afghanistan are the seven other full members of what some call a club of poor nations.

At the group’s 18th summit, held in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, Beijing allies Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka pushed for China’s upgrading from observer status to full membership. India sought to defeat the initiative because SAARC, as the organization is known, operates on consensus and New Delhi feared that China would block its initiatives in the future.

The last thing the group needs is more obstructionism. By all accounts, the Kathmandu meeting, whose motto was “Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity,” was not a success. That is not especially surprising because SAARC is itself considered a failure, with little to show since it was formed in 1985. “SAARC represents the EU approach to South Asia,” writes M. A. Niazi, an Indian journalist, but unfortunately South Asia is not Europe, where leaders are intent on integrating their economies and societies.

Yet, despite everything, the South Asian grouping is becoming an important platform for India, now intent on countering China’s attempts to dominate South Asia.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signaled that SAARC would play a big role in his foreign policy from the very beginning. Creating a great deal of optimism at the time, he invited the leaders of the seven other nations—including Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif—to his inauguration in late May. Since then, not much has been accomplished in furthering SAARC’s objectives.

For one thing, Pakistan is unsure about integration within the group, especially since India, considered its primary adversary, is SAARC’s dominate member. Ultimately, Islamabad’s reluctance may not matter. Modi appears increasingly impatient with the Pakistanis. He and Sharif slighted each other in Kathmandu and then Modi indicated India was going to go ahead with his initiatives, with SAARC or without it. “The bonds will grow,” the Indian prime minister told the seven other leaders at the Kathmandu summit. “Through SAARC or outside it. Among us all or some of us.”

Yet Pakistani obstinance is not the only barrier to progress. Local Indian politics during Modi’s short tenure has hindered India playing its natural role as leader of the region. In 2014, he let opposition in the state of West Bengal halt links with Bangladesh, and let resistance in Tamil Nadu slow outreach to Sri Lanka.

Modi may think of India as the core of South Asia and the center of SAARC, but China is moving into the region fast, marginalizing New Delhi. Take Nepal, the host of the recent summit. At the end of December, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Kathmandu for a three-day visit to deliver help to Nepal, especially assistance in generating electricity.  Beijing will increase official annual aid more than five-fold, from $24 million to $128 million. Moreover, China will spend additional money to build a police academy for Nepal.

Across the region, India sees more and more evidence of Chinese involvement. Beijing’s officials first build relationships with small states on India’s periphery with aid and trade and then move on to establishing military ties. “China’s strategy toward South Asia is premised on encircling India and confining her within the geographical coordinates of the region,” writes Harsh Pant of King’s College London. “This strategy of using proxies started off with Pakistan and has gradually evolved to include other states in the region, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.” If India is now surrounded, it is largely New Delhi’s fault. As Pant notes, “India’s protectionist tendencies have allowed China to don the mantle of regional economic leader.”

China’s penetration of South Asia and the rest of the continent is so complete that Akhilesh Pillalamarri, who writes at the Diplomat, believes New Delhi has no real choice but to sign onto “Asia’s emerging ‘Chinese Order.’” Beijing, he says, is rearranging trade routes through the continent so that they run through China. “There is no alternative for India but to become a part of this order or remain unintegrated, since it is too late for India to set up its own Asian order.”

China is certainly using its trade prowess, but pronouncements that the game is over for New Delhi are premature. Businessweek believes India’s growth rate could overtake China’s in 2016, in what the magazine calls “a world-turned-upside-down moment.” In reality, that point has probably passed, as Chinese reports of economic performance look exaggerated.

In any event, India can, through a combination of fast growth and progressive trade policies, win back its region from Beijing. China can afford to buy the loyalty of South Asian leaders for only a few more years if its economy is as bad as it now appears.

“The truth is, India comes into its own on the world stage when it carries the neighborhood with it,” correctly notes the Hindu, an English-language daily in the Indian city of Chennai, in an editorial at the end of November. That is the crucial test for the Modi government.

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