Hello China-South Asia Cooperation Forum, goodbye SAARC?

BY S VENKAT NARAYAN Our Special Correspondent

FUXIAN LAKE (Yunnan, China): Even as the 19th summit of the 33-year-old South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) that was due in Islamabad in November 2016 is being held up due to quibbling between India and Pakistan, China has successfully launched the First China-South Asia Cooperation Forum (CSACF) here on June 15.

Over 400 ministers, senior officials, delegates and media representatives from all SAARC member-states except Bhutan attend the meeting at the luxurious Fuxian Lake Hilton here. Speakers from seven of the eight SAARC countries—-Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka—-plus Myanmar and Vietnam from Southeast Asia spoke eloquently, lauding Beijing’s initiative to launch the CSACF to bring South Asia and China together on one platform.

Curiously, nobody took the trouble of mentioning SAARC. Launched to promote the South Asian nations as a single economic and cultural bloc in 1985, SAARC leaders were to hold annual summits. So far, it could hold only 18. The historic hostility between India and Pakistan has virtually reduced the regional body into an ineffective entity, virtually on its death bed.

Despite valiant efforts made by well-meaning folks, SAARC has not been able to achieve much. Intra-SAARC trade is still a pitiable 5% of their cumulative global trade, and has barely crossed the $50-billion mark.

On the other hand, China’s trade with SAARC countries has been booming. According to Yunnan Province’s Governor Ruan Chengfa, it shot up by 31% to $126.26 billion this year from $93.3 billion in 2015.

With six of the eight SAARC members—-barring India and Bhutan—-signing up for President Xi Jinping’s ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative to revive the ancient Silk Road, the trade between China and South Asia will soon begin to gallop.

Praising Beijing’s initiative, Indian Consul General in Guangzhou, Sailas Thangal said the CSACF boasts of the world’s biggest market. But the region also boasts of being home to millions of poor people. "So, the governments of China and South Asia should facilitate the criss-crossing of ideas for development, and a trustworthy connection of hearts and minds."

Said Li Jiming, Director-General, Foreign Affairs Office of The People’s Government of Yunnan Province: "The cooperation between China and South Asia is in accord with the development needs of the two sides and will greatly promote regional cooperation in Asia."

A regular forum mechanism by way of a secretariat has been established. Participating countries have agreed to build the CSACF into a new platform for policy dialogue, economic cooperation, people-to-people exchanges, and knowledge-sharing for the two sides, based on wide consultation, joint contribution and mutual benefits.

In a statement issued as the Fuxian Lake Initiative, the participating countries said they recognize that China and South Asian countries "should further deepen interactions to consolidate cooperation, expand its basis, materialize cooperation projects and improve cooperation quality, making contributions to the realization of sustainable, inclusive and prosperous development."

The CSACF will hold its next meeting also at Fuxian Lake in 2019.

Meanwhile, it was not clear if the formation of CSACF will put SAARC into a deep freeze.

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