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India blocks China entry into Saarc

New Delhi, March 19: India has blocked a fresh thrust by China to join the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, a grouping New Delhi dominates, arguing that the alliance first needs to clarify its objectives in strengthening ties with new partners.

The foreign ministry has communicated to all other member states of the Saarc —Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — that it is uncomfortable with any expansion of the alliance at present, senior officials confirmed to The Telegraph.

The message to Saarc nations comes at a time Indian officials say China has increased aggressive lobbying with other member states to join the grouping as a full-fledged member.

China is already one of nine observer states — Australia, the US, the European Union, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Mauritius and Myanmar are the other observers. Observer states can collaborate with full members of Saarc on specific initiatives but do not have voting rights.

“We see absolutely no reason for the expansion of Saarc to include nations that do not directly share in the economy, culture and shared history of South Asia,” a senior official said.

South Asia’s growing strategic and economic importance has attracted efforts from key nations and alliances across the world to form partnerships with Saarc.

Already, this has led to a lopsided structure rare in the world of multilateral diplomacy — Saarc has more observers than actual full-fledged members. Indian officials accept that the grouping will need to be expanded at some stage.

But China’s hectic lobbying over the past few months with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka has set off alarm bells in New Delhi. Though China has evinced interest in the past, this thrust, officials here said, has been more intense than ever before.

The introduction of China into the grouping would give these nations an option other than India, among major economies, to turn to for economic leadership within Saarc. But it would reduce India’s leverage within the grouping.

“Saarc needs to clarify its thinking on the nature and the direction of its relationships with partner states who have observer status,” external affairs minister Salman Khurshid told fellow foreign ministers at a Saarc meeting in Male recently.

“Some of the observer states have done commendable work with our association, but it is important that we define a clear set of policies and objectives for these relationships and their future direction, before we move further.”

But India’s move to stall progress on China’s hopes for full-fledged membership of Saarc also carries a cost, officials said.

Russia, one of India’s closest allies, and Turkey are keen to gain observer status with Saarc. But expanding observer states without increasing member nations will not be easy to justify given the grouping’s already lopsided structure, the officials said.