During the 13th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) Summit in 2005, the organisation expanded from being a closed shop of South Asian countries to one that now allows 'Observer' status to many countries courtesy Pakistan and Nepal, which insisted on membership for China and India welcomed the move.
China's keenness to become a full member of Saarc is not new. It's linked to China's revised international policies where it considers participation in international fora as necessary to further its own interests. China's earlier ties with South Asia can be described as what the Chinese themselves call a 'single pillar relationship', which concentrated on security and an anti-India policy with bilateral ties with Pakistan as its anchoring pillar.
Its policy for South Asia took a more balanced turn after the 80s when China began normalising relations with India and building stronger bilateral ties with other countries in the region. Today, its rapid rise and increasing confidence have changed its strategy to a multi-pronged one and it concentrates on both economic and military exchanges in the region. It has a strong economic presence in every South Asian country, including India, and has even signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with Pakistan.
The two other countries that China's been concentrating on are Nepal and Sri Lanka. In Nepal, it's been pushing for greater land connectivity and plans to build a railway line between Lhasa and Kathmandu. Its focus is to ensure security with Tibet and not allow anti-China activities. China's also increased its presence in Nepal both economically and through educational exchanges. It's also using the Maoists' anti-India rhetoric to enhance its own interests.
In Sri Lanka, China's strategy is focused on the increasing role it sees for its naval power. It is building a port in Hanbantota and has declared that it doesn't see the Indian Ocean as India's sphere of influence. China also aided Sri Lanka with military equipment in its civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, something India's domestic politics didn't allow it to do. It has a strong relationship with Myanmar's military junta and is perhaps the only country that ensures the junta's survival.
Thus, overall, China is pushing for a stronger relationship with Saarc that hinges on increasing its presence in the region. While it's challenging India's traditional ties with the South Asian countries, China's also recognised India's economic growth and its rising international status. Today there're voices within China that counsel a balanced relationship between India and Pakistan and feel India can't be ignored. Others point out that pushing India too much on Pakistan would mean pushing it into an alliance with America and Japan, an alliance that bothers China.
While China's overall relationship with South Asia may be expanding, there's one factor that could derail it: the large trade deficit with China that all countries in the region face. India's filed anti-dumping charges against China. Pakistan's also witnessing rumblings against China's trade patterns. There could be domestic opposition if trade with China leads to a higher unemployment rate and a collapse of local manufacturing in these nations.
China is already an economic powerhouse and is on its way to exercise what it considers to be its 'legitimate role' in the world. It does, however, suffer from an image problem. Though China has changed its slogan from 'peaceful rise' to 'peace and development', its aspiration of becoming a superpower, accompanied with rising nationalism within China, is of concern for all. Where Saarc countries are concerned, China should know that though it's seen as an alternative to India, the countries of the region won't necessarily like to replace Indian dominance with Chinese hegemony. India will certainly contest any overt attempt to derail its long-term friendship treaties in the region.
Ravni Thakur is Associate Professor, Delhi University. The views expressed by the author are personal