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Insights into Editorial: China holds third South Asia multilateral meet in new push





China has held its third multilateral dialogue with countries from South Asia to take forward closer cooperation on fighting COVID-19 and coordinating their economic agendas, reflecting a new approach in Beijing’s outreach to the region.

The third dialogue, held virtually, brought together every country in the region barring India, Bhutan and the Maldives, and was aimed at “anti-epidemic cooperation and poverty reduction cooperation”.

The virtual meet seen as a bid to strengthen cooperation among the four nations in pandemic response and economic recovery.

The two virtual meets appear part of China’s growing engagement in the region, in the wake of the global pandemic.

China’s growing engagement in the region:

All three dialogues have been attended by Pakistan and Nepal, which are emerging as two lynchpins in China’s regional strategy.

The first such meeting was convened by China, and was attended by Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan.

This was followed by a five-member grouping in November attended by China, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

The meeting was attended by all five countries that have taken part in these dialogues, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and was a follow-up to the two earlier meetings.

To boost their post-COVID-19 economic recovery:

  1. In this meeting, the representatives shared their experience on anti-epidemic and poverty relief.
  2. They talked about dealing with the impact of the pandemic, resuming economic and trade cooperation, dealing with non-traditional security challenges and advancing sustainable development, and reached an initial consensus.
  3. It shows our strong will and confidence in dealing with challenges together and achieving cooperation.
  4. China would like to work with all sides in implementing our consensus and to make greater contribution to building a regional community with shared future for health.
  5. In the previous two rounds, the countries also discussed how to work more closely together under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to boost their post-COVID-19 economic recovery and agreed that countries linked by land ports should establish joint response mechanisms in border areas, apart from committing to greater information sharing and international cooperation.

Emergence of Asia and China:

  1. The U.S. faces an uphill task in seeking to lead a new multidimensional institution in the face of China’s re-emergence.
  2. The re-emergence of China is based on technology, innovation and trade balancing U.S. military superiority.
  3. At the same time, there is a clear trend of declining global trust in free-market liberalism, central to western civilisation.
  4. With the West experiencing a shock comparable to the one experienced by Asia, 200 years ago, the superiority of western civilisation is also under question.
  5. The novel coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the shift of global wealth to Asia suggesting an inclusive global order based on principles drawn from ancient Asian civilisations.
  6. Colonised Asia played no role in shaping the Industrial Revolution.

Bilateralism versus multilateralism:

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the varying nature of the challenges faced by the world.

First, these challenges are cross-national in character. They respect no national boundaries and are not amenable to national solutions only.

Second, these challenges are cross-domain in nature, with strong feedback loops. A disruption in one domain often cascades into parallel disruptions in other domains.

The intersection of cross-national and cross-domain challenges demand multilateral approaches to reach out any solution.

However, there has been an upsurge in narrow nationalism, an assertion of parochial interests over the pursuit of global (shared) interests, and a fostering of competition among states rather than embracing collaboration. Thus, multilateralism is possibly at its weakest today.

CPEC extension:

Quadrilateral dialogue with Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan, China’s Foreign Minister proposed extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan, as well as taking forward an economic corridor plan with Nepal, called the Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network.

China’s Foreign Minister told the conference the four countries were “connected by mountains and rivers”, and also offered to share China’s expertise and capacities on COVID-19 vaccines.

The Foreign Minister also hit out at countries that had “politicised” the pandemic and “undermined cooperation for their own political needs”, saying they would be “nailed to history’s pillar of shame forever”.


The global community has not been able to come on a single platform or frame a Global Agenda on issues related to terrorism, Climate Change, cybersecurity etc.

Also, due to the lack of any global public health framework, Covid-19 has spread into a pandemic.

China has been the factory to the world, but global investors have been seeking a gradual decoupling from China. This is due to the increasing cost of production and the trust deficit in China after Covid-19 pandemic.

In general, India needs to build multilateral trade blocs/economic groupings involving its South Asian neighbours along with Indian Ocean neighbours, while rejuvenating organisations such as BIMSTEC and IOR-ARC.

Besides economic goals, such alliances can also broadly address non-traditional security threats.

In short, India should not allow a “recession for multilateralism” in its diplomatic vision.