China joining SAARC? No kidding but…

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Imagine a scenario where the Russian Federation would join the European Union. Forget the current scenario with the increasing violence spreading in Ukraine and the high risk confrontation between Russia and the western countries.

Even in the best possible situation, it would be unthinkable to even dream about Russia joining the European integration process.

It is not that the Russians are not European (they are with all the aspects  part of the European family but  they are also part of  theAsian family as well given their territorial domains extending from Europe to the Pacific) but historically they have always been playing a very unique role.

Though part of the European history, Russians always had a distinctive identity, making them different and unique from other European peers.

Italians, French, Germans, Spaniards, they all have strong national identities, often overlapping and co-existing and sometimes colliding with locally rooted regional realities  but all can claim, at least partially, to be Europeans.

Except for a few exceptions it is now common to see a national flag of a member nation waiving besides the EU ensign. That symbolism has become part of the narrative around which the regional integration process is being built.

Not that the EU member nations were born “European” as such but step by step the regional integration process in the EU, founded on the ashes of the second world war, has led to a common sense of identity. Russians were never part of that process. They never felt the need.

The same could be said for China and South Asia. No doubt that there are historical links between China and the South Asian nations in the same way there have been deeply rooted ties between Russia and the countries now members of the EU.

Yet thinking about China joining the South Asia Association of Regional Integration, SAARC is just thinking about Russia joining the EU, something both unthinkable and undesirable.

It is not that the South Asian Nations should “snub” China or that the role of China can be downplayed so easily especially with the vigorously strong foreign policy of President Xi Jinping.

It is inevitable and definitely positive that all South Asian nations succeed to develop productive and effective bilateral ties with China.

After all even India with Modi has already set a positive framework of engagement with Beijing and both the Asian giants cannot but thrive from such enhanced bilateral cooperation.

In the same way it is also extremely important for SAARC as a regional group to step up its cooperation and collaboration with China but at the same time the South Asians nations should commit themselves towards a stronger integration process.

Expanding horizontally the outreach of SAARC by positively involving China though concrete actions especially in the economic and infrastructural domains but at the same time the South Asian nations should be able to move ahead with their regional integration project.

You cannot really let China in without first strengthening the SAARC.

If we are really serious about having stronger involvement of China with South Asia, we need first to step up the integration process in the region.

There is no doubt that a greater Chinese participation in South Asian economic development can vastly create multiple win win situations not only in the region but also within the broader Asia Pacific.

Opening the doors for more and greater collaboration and cooperation with China would also set new opportunities to tie up the SAARC region with the ASEAN countries that had the ability and political will to set aside their differences for the quest of a common regional interest.

Countries like Myanmar and Thailand would also take advantage of the new cooperative framework contributing positively to set off a new domino effect with the potential to reach out to also the remaining ASEAN nations currently inadequately tied to South Asia.

This could herald a new era of multiregional prosperity within Asia Pacific where even the pacific islands could benefit following the recent interest shown for them respectively by President Xi and Prime Minister Modi  with their separate visits to the region.

A new Asian Pacific compact for wellbeing and development bridging the SAARC region with ASEAN nations and ultimately with Melanesian countries and Pacific islands is a real possibility and an opportunity that should not be wasted.

The new scenario could well constitute the foundations of a new arc of peace, development and prosperity that potentially would assume the same importance of the so much talked about new Silk Road.

Bold steps must be taken during the upcoming SAARC meeting in Kathmandu to give impetus to a vision of a better, stronger and more prosperous South Asia. The eyes of the entire continent are on Kathmandu.

Political will is the most important asset that now South Asia desperately needs. With that largely available and at the disposal of the regional integration process, all implementation gaps so far accumulated will be bridged for good.

The viability of this grand project will rest on the SAARC’s leaders. It is up to them to raise the stakes of the game for the good of South Asia and the entire Asia Pacific.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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