Pakistan seeks larger SAARC to counter India's influence

'A greater South Asia is already emerging,' said Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed. 'This greater South Asia includes China, Iran and the neighbouring Central Asian republics.' Photograph:( Getty )

Washington, DC, United States Oct 12, 2016, 07.52 AM (IST)

To counter India's influence over the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Pakistan is exploring the possibility of forming a larger South Asian Economic Alliance, diplomatic observers say, the Dawn newspaper reported Wednesday. 

The idea was pitched by a parliamentary delegation from Pakistan during its visit to Washington last week. The delegation is in New York now.

"A greater South Asia is already emerging,” said Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed in an interaction with the media. “This greater South Asia includes China, Iran and the neighbouring Central Asian republics.”

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was described by him as the key route linking South Asia with Central Asia. The Gwadar port would be the closest water port for the land-locked Central Asian states, he pointed out. 

“We want India to join this arrangement as well,” said Hussain. However, India may be unwilling to accept such an arrangement, considering the advantage SAARC provides it with. 

In a bid to isolate Pakistan, India last month exerted its influence on SAARC when it declared that it would not be attending the South Asia-based regional group's 19th summit, which was to be held in Islamabad on November 15 and 16 this year. 

Pakistan's alleged involvement in the September 18 terrorist attack in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir was the reason cited by India behind its decision to boycott the summit. However, Pakistani has strongly denied the allegation, citing the absence of any concrete evidence provided by India to support its claim. Yet, India was supported by three other SAARC nations - Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan - who too boycotted the summit.

This exposed Pakistan's isolation within the group where it had once played a key role. Afghanistan and Bangladesh are India's close allies. Bhutan, surrounded by India, is way too small and dependent to question New Delhi's moves. 

Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal share good relations with Pakistan but they are not powerful enough to take on India. 

“Apparently, the showdown forced Pakistan to conclude that in its present shape, SAARC will always be dominated by India. That’s why they are now talking about a greater South Asia,” a senior diplomat told Dawn, confirming reports that Pakistan is seeking a new regional agreement,

Pakistan hopes that this new arrangement will give it more room to manoeuvre when India tries to force a decision on it,” said another diplomat to Dawn.

The Washington-based diplomatic observers say that the arrangement Pakistan is seeking will also suit China  as it remains worried about India's growing influence in the region. The observers further argue that Central Asian states and Iran may be persuaded by China to join the new arrangement. 

However, the analysts warn that SAARC members will not be too keen to support the idea. The new arrangement will not have much in store for Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka as joining a land route far from their borders will not be very favourable to them. Besides, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have their own ports. 

Afghanistan, which is a land-locked Central Asian country, is likely to benefit the most from a larger South Asian alliance as any trade route that links South and Central Asian regions is beneficial for Afghanistan. But considering Afghanistan's links to India, it is unlikely to join any arrangement that hurts India's interest. 

The application for SAARC membership by Afghanistan in 2006 paved way for an interesting debate on the definition of South Asian identity as Afghanistan is essentially a Central Asian country. 

A stipulation for Afghanistan to hold general elections was imposed by SAARC member states. The polls were held in 2005, later enabling the country to join the group in April 2007 as its eighth member. 

Even if a larger South Asia became a reality, there is no certainty that its members will stand by the side of Pakistan in its disputes with India, a South Asian diplomat told Dawn. 

“Many Central Asian states have strong ties with India and Iran too has problems with Pakistan,” the diplomat added.

(WION with inputs from Dawn)