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Reviving SAARC to deal with China

Topics Covered: India and its neighbourhood- relations.

Reviving SAARC to deal with China


Amid India- China border tensions, as part of its global expansionism, China is chipping away at India’s interests in South Asia.

  1. China’s proximity to Pakistan is well known.
  2. Nepal is moving closer to China for ideational and material reasons.
  3. China is wooing Bangladesh by offering tariff exemption to 97% of Bangladeshi products.
  4. It has also intensified its ties with Sri Lanka through massive investments.

So, most South Asian nations are now largely dependent on China for imports despite geographical proximity to India.

This should be a major cause for concern for New Delhi.

Why SAARC is relevant now?

Several foreign policy experts argue that India’s strategic dealing with China has to begin with South Asia.

In this regard, it is important to reinvigorate SAARC, which has been in the doldrums since 2014.

  • In the last few years, due to increasing animosity with Pakistan, India’s political interest in SAARC dipped significantly.

India started investing in other regional instruments, such as BIMSTEC, as an alternative to SAARC.

  • However, BIMSTEC cannot replace SAARC for reasons such as lack of a common identity and history among all BIMSTEC members. Moreover, BIMSTEC’s focus is on the Bay of Bengal region, thus making it an inappropriate forum to engage all South Asian nations.


What needs to be done now?

To revive the process of South Asian economic integration.

South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world with intra-regional trade teetering at barely 5% of total South Asian trade, compared to 25% of intra-regional trade in the ASEAN region.

  • While South Asian countries have signed trade treaties, the lack of political will and trust deficit has prevented any meaningful movement.
  • According to the World Bank, trade in South Asia stands at $23 billion of an estimated value of $67 billion.

India should take the lead and work with its neighbours to slash the tariff and non-tariff barriers.

There’s a need to resuscitate the negotiations on a SAARC investment treaty, pending since 2007.

Challenges ahead:

There has been anti-Pakistan rhetoric and Islamophobia on the Indian soil. There’s also a recurrent use of the ‘Bangladeshi migrant’ rhetoric.

  • Such majoritarian politics influences foreign policy in undesirable ways. It dents India’s soft power of being a liberal and secular democracy, which gives moral legitimacy to India’s leadership in the region.

Next, economic vision of the government remains convoluted. It’s unclear what the slogans of atma nirbharta (self-reliance) and ‘vocal for local’ mean.

  • Many are stating that India needs to cut down its dependence on imports, thus signalling a return to the obsolete economic philosophy of import substitution.
  • If this marks sliding back to protectionism, one is unsure if India will be interested in deepening South Asian economic integration.


Deeper regional economic integration will create greater interdependence with India acquiring the central role, which, in turn, would serve India’s strategic interests too.


Prelims Link:

  2. BBIN
  3. Motor Vehicle Agreement.
  4. What is CPEC?
  5. Belt and Road initiative.

Mains Link:

Discuss how SAARC revival helps India deal with China.

Sources: the Hindu.


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