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China unleashes charm for SAARC-plus one summit

By Manish Chand, IANS,

Addu (Maldives)/New Delhi : With diaries and paper bags flaunting ‘China-SAARC friendship!’, Beijing unleashed a charm offensive for a greater role at the eight-nation summit in the Maldives last week and is now pitching for a “SAARC-plus-one” summit.

Chafing for long at being merely an observer at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), China has been lobbying hard to join the South Asian grouping as a member or at least get its status elevated as a dialogue partner.

At the two-day SAARC summit that concluded in Addu Atoll in the Maldives Nov 11, China sought to woo visiting delegations with gifts that included paper bags, diaries and notebooks with the message of China-SAARC friendship embossed on them.

These gifts were left casually on the concluding day at different places in the Equatorial Convention Centre, the venue of the summit, and at Shangri-La resort island where the South Asian leaders and their close aides were staying, said an official who saw these gifts lying all over the place.

Many delegates picked them up and packed them carefully in their bags, said the official.

Not only that, the Chinese delegation headed by Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun did hectic behind-the-scenes lobbying with visiting delegations from other South Asian countries in a bid to win support for a separate summit between China and the eight SAARC countries. The formula is modelled on the lines of the one Beijing has with the 10-nation Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Speaking at the summit, Zhang announced $300,000 for the SAARC Development Fund in 2012 and declared that China was ready to raise its ties with the region to new heights.

In fact, China signalled its intention to step up its presence in SAARC by opening an embassy in Male, the capital of the Maldives, just two days before the summit.

China’s SAARC charm offensive appears to have succeeded to some extent.

The Addu Declaration, the joint communique issued at the end of the summit, noted that the leaders decided to “undertake a comprehensive review of all matters relating to SAARC’s engagement with Observers, including the question of dialogue partnership, before the next Session of the Council of Ministers in 2012”.

Pakistan has been lobbying hard for China, its all-weather friend, for inclusion as a member in the organization and has contended that given the size of China’s economy and its global clout, the inclusion of Beijing will give greater heft to the eight-nation grouping.

But Islamabad’s real reason for getting China into the SAARC, an official said, is to counter India, the trillion dollar economy with 1.2 billion people that is seen by some as the Big Daddy that tends to dominate the regional grouping.

Not just Pakistan, but Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives appear to be favourably disposed towards Beijing’s higher profile in SAARC which could range from being a full-fledged member to a dialogue partner.

Officials in Delhi said India wants SAARC to remain a South Asian grouping and by expanding it to include countries outside the region, SAARC may lose its original mandate and character.

The power play between India and China in multilateral groupings is nothing new. Beijing has been opposing an attempt by India to join the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) where it is currently an observer.

There are nine observers who participate in SAARC summits in the opening and closing sessions as observers. They are the US, China, Australia, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Mauritius, Myanmar and the 27-nation European Union.

At the 2008 summit in Colombo, the SAARC countries had decided on a moratorium on the admission of more observers.