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South Asia 101: Democracy And Geopolitics

South Asia 101: Democracy And Geopolitics

By Sanjay Upadhya

Before he flew into Dhaka to attend the much-delayed summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warned of the danger of failed states emerging in the region. Long before he left the Bangladeshi capital, Dr. Singh must have discovered the futility of India’s worry of having to bear the neighborhood’s burdens alone.

Without a seat at the conference table, China had already become part of regional deliberations. India’s “near abroad” had stepped out far ahead in time.

India’s proposal to include Afghanistan as SAARC’s eighth member was expected to sail through – until Nepal stepped in. The Nepalese delegation threatened to veto Afghanistan’s entry unless China was included in the organization as an observer or dialogue partner.

The 13th summit of South Asia’s premier grouping already had its share of bad luck. Last year’s tsunami had forced Bangladesh to reschedule the conference for early February. In protest against King Gyanendra’s dismissal of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s multiparty government and takeover of full executive powers, India pulled out of the rescheduled summit.

New Delhi imposed an arms embargo on the Royal Nepalese Army battling a fierce Maoist insurgency in the kingdom. Over the months, India-Nepal relations have hit rock bottom. The Singh government’s handling of the Nepal crisis has revealed ruptures in the Indian political establishment as well.

Playing the gracious host, Bangladesh, where the organization was founded 20 years ago, urged the Indian and Nepalese delegations to sort out their differences. SAARC, which operates on the principle of consensus, eventually configured a compromise. Afghanistan would be invited to join immediately, while the SAARC council of ministers would decide the structure of China’s -- and Japan’s -- association at a meeting next July.

In asserting India’s equivalent of the Monroe Doctrine, Singh had the option of coming out explicitly against China’s inclusion in SAARC. It had geography on its side, although globalization has diminished the value of that attribute. Then reality set in. If India could see virtue in forging closer links with the Association of South East Asian Nations, could China be faulted for wanting to do the same with SAARC?

For some reason, Indian leaders, who can take on the sole surviving superpower with remarkable assurance, find themselves significantly restrained when it comes to China. Indian objections to China’s entry were couched in such terms as “modalities”, “precedence” and “memorandum of understanding”.

Officially, Pakistan supported Afghanistan’s membership – in one of the rare instances of cooperation between South Asia’s nuclear-armed rivals -- so it could avoid India’s direct censure for having spoiled the party. In response to Indian concerns over where to draw the line once such a broad welcome mat were placed at the SAARC door, one Pakistani official urged everyone to look at the bright side: the organization’s popularity.

Amused, the other three members – Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives – joined the host in urging New Delhi and Kathmandu to resolve their differences in the interest of preserving what they had. Thirteen summits in 20 years was hardly a record to be proud of. China, for its part, remained studiously silent over the entire affair.

Much of India’s antagonism was heaped on Nepal and perhaps will continue to be. With Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala currently in New Delhi and United Marxist-Leninist general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal just back from extensive consultations there, it was hardly surprising to see the seven-party anti-palace alliance criticize King Gyanendra for playing the so-called “China card”.

But was the issue really the surprise the Indians accused Nepal of springing at the last minute? On the eve of the summit, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman reasserted his country’s desire to strengthen cooperation with South Asian countries to achieve common prosperity. In less official settings, the Chinese have been more candid in their desire to join the group.

More significantly, the Chinese spokesman’s remark came against the background of Beijing’s steady extension of its economic reach in South Asia. China’s trade volume with all South Asian nations is close to $20 billion a year, of which $13.6 billion is with India. Although they run trade deficits with Beijing, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal receive significant economic assistance from China.

In a clear display of China’s growing political influence in the region, all four nations affirm the "one-China" policy that views Taiwan as an inalienable part of the mainland. Similarly, they recognize Tibet as an integral part of China.

On the sidelines of the summit, Dr. Singh was anxious to re-educate King Gyanendra on the basic tenets of democracy. In the main sessions, the Indian prime minister got a crash course on geopolitics.


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