China-led Regional Cooperation Initiatives in South Asia: What does It Mean for the Region?

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The recent developments of China-led initiatives of regional cooperation involving South Asian countries have come to the forefront as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is in stalemate situation. Founded in 1985, SAARC is coping with several problems within the region and is mostly distracted by the long-standing rivalry between India and Pakistan. Notably, the 2016 summit was called off after India and Afghanistan said it would not participate. Analysts raise questions whether the new Chinese initiatives, alongside the more-visible Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is going to ring the death-knell for the traditional structure of SAARC making an alternative regional body to SAARC, where it had failed to go beyond the ‘observer’ status, to obtain full membership, or not. Chinese initiatives came on the juncture when the SAARC is facing the existential dilemma.

Growing Chinese Engagement in South Asia at Multilateral Level

On 15 June 2018, China launched the ‘First China-South Asia Cooperation Forum’ (CSACF) in Yunnan Province. SAARC member-states except Bhutan attended the meeting and lauded Beijing’s initiative to launch the CSACF to bring South Asia and China together on one platform. Li Jiming, Director-General, Foreign Affairs Office of Yunnan Province, said that the CSACF was a part of the BRI, which is expected to bring together South Asian countries that share a geographical vicinity and cultural affinity with China. The second major initiative is that the China-South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center was recently launched in Chongqing City, China. Out of the eight members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), five have joined the Beijing-led initiative except India, Bhutan and the Maldives. The idea of setting up such a center was first introduced during a virtual meeting between foreign ministers of the five South Asian nations and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the end of April 2021 to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic.

Apart from the Center, as per the agreement between China and five South Asian nations, China has already set up China-South Asian Countries Emergency Supplies Reserve in Chengdu mostly targeting natural disasters and prompt supply of emergency goods. The assistant foreign minister of China and the ambassadors of the above-mentioned South Asian countries got together in Chengdu on July 9, 2021 to set up these platforms. The purpose behind it is to pool strength, integrate resources, and exchange wisdom to support and help the South Asian countries’ economic development and livelihood improvement, jointly working for COVID-19 vaccination and promoting the cause of poverty reduction. Another platform that China is working with South Asian nations is to set up a China-South Asian Countries E-commerce Cooperation Forum on Poverty Alleviation in Rural Areas. These initiatives along with the Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center have repercussions for regional cooperation, as China-led BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) has already made geopolitical and strategic inroads of Beijing to South Asian landscapes.   

Prospects and Challenges

The growing engagement of China raises a strategic question – will China be able to create a new regional framework in South Asia with or without the SAARC? It may be mentioned that China has been closely linked with SAARC as an Observer since 2005. At the 12th SAARC summit in Islamabad, the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, sent a message of greetings to the SAARC member countries. It was at this summit that the SAARC leaders agreed to ‘establish dialogue partnership with other regional bodies and with states outside the region but interested in SAARC activities.’ China and Japan were the first countries accepted by SAARC with observer status at the 13th SAARC summit at Dhaka in 2005. As time has passed, SAARC has faced more hurdles and China’s engagement in the region has sharply increased in the recent years. The membership of China in SAARC emerged as a major debate in the 2010s. Particularly, in the backdrop of the Kathmandu Summit in 2014, the issue of China’s full membership was widely discussed.

South Asian countries and epistemic community have two opposing views in this regard. One view, championed by Pakistan, promotes the idea of engaging China in SAARC as a member to maximize its relations with South Asia at multilateral level. With the status of Observer China has a limited scope to involve in regional cooperation process. The full membership would provide an increased opportunity for China to invest its resources in the region. Some also argue that it would strengthen SAARC and balance India as a dominant member. Another view, advocated by India, tends to limit China’s engagement in SAARC and is opposed to full membership to China. It favours limited involvement of China with the current status of observer. Other members of SAARC have not voiced any concrete positions on this issue. However, one can argue that some of these members are open to the idea of having greater interactions in the backdrop of growing bilateral and regional connections with China. Besides, Pakistani and Indian positions are based on their respective national and bilateral interests guided by strategic calculations. Given the opposing views of India and Pakistan and the compulsion of SAARC Charter for a unanimous decision-making process, the issue of China’s membership has not moved further.

Recently, the debate has resurfaced. As indicated above, China has led several regional initiatives of social and human development in South Asia. Majority of the member countries have joined these endeavours from poverty alleviation to the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent years India is also diverting its attention from SAARC to BIMSTEC making its priority of “Act East” policy agenda. What are the options for institutionalizing Chinese engagement in South Asia at multilateral level? One of the options is offering a membership of SAARC to China and building a new SAARC. This view has already been opposed by India. Another option is developing a parallel regional regime alternating the existing one. If one looks beyond SAARC, there are some examples of regional cooperation involving South Asian countries. BIMSTEC, BCIM, BBIN, and SASEC are some concrete instances of regional and sub-regional cooperation, which also largely remain ineffective. It must be a herculean task to create another platform especially when the members have diverse interests and geographical landscapes. Despite the issues of lack of solidarity and lack of consensus among SAARC members, the current SAARC members have an established avenue with homogenous tradition, culture and history. Therefore, replacing SAARC with a new platform led by China is not a possibility.

Moreover, the Beijing-led initiatives have not, till now, stipulated any policy, charter and the mechanisms and directions of regional cooperation. An attempt of creating parallel regional platform in addition to SAARC and BIMSTEC may not serve the purpose of genuine regional cooperation for the South Asian countries. Even the role of the BIMSTEC should be perceived as a complement to South Asian regional cooperation that was mooted by great leaders like Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Jawaharlal Nehru. The subsequent establishment of SAARC in 1985 was the concrete development of their vision.

Focusing on the successful experiences of ASEAN and EU, one can argue that in the case of South Asia an alternative attempt of regional cooperation sidestepping the SAARC would be unhelpful for the entire region. The current interest of China about an alternate platform has its limit. The underlying motives behind Chinese initiatives of developing such regional bloc are linked with its geopolitical, strategic and economic compulsions. China has different kinds of strategic, maritime, political and ideological interests with different South Asian nations to counterbalance India. It is clear that China focuses on South Asia and wants to counter SAARC with an intention to attach the BRI to the regional dynamics and counter QUAD in gaining strategic footing in South Asia.

In conclusion, as far as South Asian regional integration is concerned, the region should focus on revitalizing the SAARC. India and Pakistan must cooperate on the issue regional cooperation as they committed in different summits and declarations since 1985. The non-cooperation of India and Pakistan at bilateral and SAARC levels has been damaging the region for decades and deprived more than one-fifth of humanity from the opportunities of regional cooperation. Any move by India or China to circumvent the SAARC is against the spirit of regionalism. However, any initiatives with positive intention of cooperation would definitely create new opportunities for multilateral cooperation and complement the existing regional cooperation framework. The recent initiatives of China in promoting cooperation on poverty reduction, COVID-19 vaccination and social development may be considered as multilateral diplomatic initiatives with an objective of common interest and mutual benefit. It would play a positive role if these initiatives were not meant as some call the creation of a northern Himalayan Quad aimed at countering the Washington-led Quad of which India is an active member.      

Delwar Hossain
Delwar Hossain
Delwar Hossain, PhD is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and Director, East Asia Center, University of Dhaka.

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