Pakistan wants China to become the ninth member-country of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) as Islamabad believes that a greater South Asian economic alliance will help corner India in the region. Islamabad is also in favour of including Iran and other neighbouring Central Asian countries in the regional bloc.
Dawn, the Pakistani daily, recently reported that the Nawaz Sharif government in Islamabad is exploring ways to counter India’s dominance in South Asia. The daily quoted a senior Pakistani official as saying: “India is in a fictional paradise and it wants to isolate Pakistan. It is underestimating Pakistan’s geo-economic location… countries and partners are queuing up to take advantage of its economic potential.” Dawn also reported that a parliamentary delegation from Pakistan, currently in New York for a five-day visit, discussed the “idea” with top US officials.
Commenting on the issue, Pakistani Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed said: “A greater South Asia is emerging. This greater South Asia includes China, Iran and the neighbouring Central Asian republics.” He explained that a greater SAARC is very much possible, as the China-Pakistan economic corridor (currently under construction) could link South Asia with Central Asia in future. The senator also stressed upon the importance of Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, saying that all the SAARC member countries, including India, and land-locked Central Asian countries could use the nearest warm water port. “We want India to join this arrangement as well,” Syed categorically said.
Meanwhile, sources close to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said that Pakistan had tried to bring in China into the SAARC process in the past, but failed. The ministry sources stressed that other SAARC members were not interested in expanding the regional bloc. In New Delhi, a senior ministry official told reporters: “They (Pakistan) argue that China can play an important role in persuading Central Asian republics and Iran to join the new arrangement. But the observers warn that SAARC members will have little interest in supporting the idea. There is not much benefit for Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka in joining a land route far from their borders, and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have their own ports.”
Although Pakistan’s plan will benefit Afghanistan the most, the land-locked war-ravaged country is too closely linked to India to join any arrangement that hurts New Delhi’s interests. In such a situation, it will be difficult for Pakistan to convince other SAARC members to accept its proposal.