Thursday, November 17, 2005

Chinese checkers

Indian Express

Lesson from Dhaka summit: India must lead SAARC or get pushed aside by its northern neighbour


After the 13th SAARC summit in Dhaka over the weekend, the political geography of India’s neighbourhood will not be the same again. India has long chafed at the term ‘South Asia’ as too limiting.

It preferred ‘Southern Asia’ to describe the larger sphere of its primacy. At the very moment India seemed to succeed in breaking the narrow geographic construct of SAARC to include Afghanistan, its neighbours have successfully pushed through a decision to include China as an observer.

Delhi, of course, has never relished the thought of letting Beijing into the SAARC tent. It had limited the potential damage from the unsettling Chinese entry as an observer by insisting on a similar status for Japan as well. The surprising vehemence with which Nepal’s King Gyanendra played the China card, and the overwhelming support of our neighbours for the Chinese association with SAARC, are huge warning signals for India.


There is no evidence, however, that India has a strategy to deal with the profound geo-political changes in India’s “near abroad”.

While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s call in Dhaka for greater connectivity within South Asia and between the subcontinent and the rest of Asia is forward looking, the question has always been about how we get there. India’s demands for overland transit through Pakistan and Bangladesh have been mired in the larger political disputes with these two neighbours.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz signaled that free and transit trade with India remain linked to progress in resolving the Jammu and Kashmir question. In the divisive politics of Bangladesh, giving transit to India has long been an explosive issue. Meanwhile the prospects for launching the South Asian Free Trade Area on January 1, 2006, remain uncertain.
SAARC has a long history of missing deadlines agreed upon and SAFTA’s entry into force remains doubtful, given the many outstanding disputes that need to be resolved.

While Pakistan and Bangladesh are obstreperous on trade and transit issues, India must find ways to pacify them in its own interests. Unless India takes full advantage of the subcontinent’s economic geography and begins to leverage the size of its own market, unilaterally if necessary, there might be no real progress towards regional economic integration. The lesson from the Dhaka summit is this: either India leads SAARC or gets pushed aside by China.

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