The continuing waves of history are bottled and labelled as ‘Ages’, ‘Centuries’ and ‘Eras’. For a while, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama felt that history had “ended” with the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” This once loudly trumpeted theme is now being regularly drowned in a multi-polar, or non-polar, world that involves various players dubbed, by Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria, “the Rest”. There is no baton-waving conductor on the global rostrum orchestrating a single systemic theme or world order. One of the many themes currently being heard is that of the so-called Asian Century, with some Asia-philes modifying Zakaria’s phrase to describe this as an orchestration of “the Best”.
In this, China and India are seen as joint composers of an emerging New World Symphony. In January 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Premier Wen Jiabao signed a “Vision Document for the 21st Century”, envisaging “a harmonious world of durable peace and common prosperity”. As “the two largest developing nations … representing more than one third of humanity”, they accepted “historical responsibility to ensure … economic and social development of the two countries and to promote peace and development in Asia and the world as a whole”. They stated that they were in favour of “an open inclusive international system”, believing that “drawing lines on grounds of ideologies and values, or geographical criteria, is not conducive to peaceful and harmonious co-existence.” Avoiding excessive Asia-centrism, a “comprehensive partnership” with Europe is now also being envisaged. China and India were also both accepted at the G8 meetings in Sapporo, Japan, in mid-July.
Regional cooperation and integration are also viewed as important features of the emerging international economic system, inclusive of the East Asia Summit process as well as sub-regional processes such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, BIMSTEC, ASEAN, ASEAN+3 (to include China, Japan and South Korea) and SAARC. China’s bilateral relationships with individual members of SAARC range from good to great, and India’s international ascendancy constitutes an important aspect of Beijing’s interest in the regional grouping. Lingering bilateral issues are being handled quietly, without significantly affecting the larger mutual interests of the two countries. SAARC itself has emerged gradually from its cautious teenage years, when it focused on achieving internal consolidation and mutual trust before opening its windows to winds of opportunity (or whatever else) from outside the region. Over time, SAARC established links with several United Nations agencies, and developed some non-intrusive cooperation with Japan, the European Union and Canada. During SAARC’s teens, even inviting US State Department officials for informal discussions on likely US-SAARC cooperation required considerable internal consultations before unanimity could be reached.
The question of inviting external observers to SAARC was first seriously discussed at the 11th Summit, in Kathmandu in January 2002. The 14th Summit, in New Delhi, subsequently welcomed China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, South Korea and the United States “to be associated as observers”, declaring that “the region would benefit from these external linkages and help its economic integration with the international community”. Prime Minister Singh has since acknowledged these observers as being among the region’s “major civilisational neighbours and economic partners”. On the basis that only observers of ministerial rank could address the Summit Inaugural Session, the countries formally present were China, Japan and South Korea – significantly, those states with institutional links with ASEAN through the ASEAN+3 mechanism, which had helped to usher in investment and market integration in Southeast Asia. In the foreseeable context, it is with these three observers that SAARC too is likely to develop economic ties. Indeed, the ASEAN+3 mechanism, suitably adapted, offers a possible way forward for SAARC.
Economic integration in SAARC has not advanced much over the past 23 years, with intra-regional trade still only around five percent of total trade. At the bilateral level, Sri Lanka has signed individual free-trade agreements with India and Pakistan. In mid-July 2008, India and Sri Lanka reached near agreement on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which is expected to be signed in August. India already has a CEPA with Singapore, and is negotiating others with Japan, Korea and ASEAN. Given India’s own economic rise, these developments heighten the Asian equation, although they are not under the SAARC logo. Beijing, having ‘fast-forwarded’ itself to its current economic status, remains the most significant example in this regard. China is the world’s fourth-largest economy, is a nuclear and space power, has the world’s largest foreign-exchange reserves, holds about USD 500 billion worth of US Treasury bonds, and has replaced the US as Japan’s largest trading partner.
In addition, Hong Kong has been dubbed by the annual Index of Economic Freedom as the world’s “most free” economy, indicating that China has no ideological or systemic hang-ups inhibiting economic development. In 2004, the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in collaboration with Beijing, set up a China-South Asia Business Forum, which has already enhanced trade flows between China and Southasia, though currently in favour of China. Beyond the Asian context, SAARC needs to expand relations with its other observers, the European Union and United States, with which individual Southasian states already have considerable ties. Greater scope could also be secured for SAARC’s engagement in multilateral forums on emerging development paradigms, trade, climate change, food supplies and energy, as well as against crossborder militancy. The manner and extent to which SAARC could, in practical terms, engage with its Asian and non-Asian observers will be a significant aspect of discussions at the Colombo Summit. Thereafter, however, hammering out and implementing substantive agreements will be the order of the day.
~ Nihal Rodrigo is former foreign secretary of Sri Lanka and former secretary-general of SAARC.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)