Building Bridges,the theme of the recently concluded 17th SAARC summit in the Maldives,is an evocative one. There is no denying its relevance,both for enhanced physical connectivity as well as for the prospects for improved political dialogue in the South Asian region. But the infrastructure metaphor is perhaps most apt for China,and in more ways than one. In the coming months,the regional organisation,with eight members and nine observers,is set to seriously undertake a comprehensive review of all matters relating to its engagement with observers. As China seeks to upgrade its engagement with South Asia,what will be worth watching is if it can play a role in bridging differences in the region.
This will depend on how Chinas public diplomacy tackles three critical challenges. The primary challenge will be to see the kind of normative choices it is likely to make in the region. As a rising power,the ideas,norms and values it will come to represent will be key to Chinas self-image. For some time now,China has been advocating the new security concept,structured around the values of accommodation and cooperative security. For instance,will China find it in its national interest to play a divisive or an integrative role in the South Asian region? Will it be tempted to tap the politics of resentment and allow South Asian states to play the China card to counter Indias influence? Or alternately,will it forsake such behaviour,raising the chances of regional peace,and in the process shoring up its own acceptability as a responsible and mature power? The interplay of ideas,interests and institutions will be a compelling one,and its trade-offs as yet complex and uncertain.
The second key challenge will be for China to show a willingness to negotiate on a range of regional public goods. Chinas increased engagement with SAARC offers a valuable opportunity for the region to begin a sub-regional conversation on water management issues,cultural and natural resources,ecosystem and biodiversity conservation. It is interesting to note the recent subtle shifts in Chinas public diplomacy on the Mekong,with a greater degree of responsiveness to stakeholder concerns. These are trends that could have constructive ripple effects for the South Asian region,and hold the promise of nudging China to accept water management norms that are less harmful to downstream communities. Successful cross-border resource governance arrangements in other border regions underline the need to look beyond formal and legal instruments to soft law,and an entire range of innovative,informal processes that allow for flexibility and consequently a greater measure of success. Their prospects for the South Asian region remain under-theorised and under-studied.
Perhaps the most critical of these challenges will be whether Chinese and Indian conceptions of peace are likely to coincide or not. Building influence is hardly likely to be a zero-sum game and it will be natural for both India and China to seek to expand their range and scope of influence. Both will be sensitive and wary of asymmetric bargains and will also be susceptible to anxieties over relative gains. Arguments about diluting the putative identity of a region are tiresomely common and it is not surprising that both India and China have advanced these on different occasions. Given the fungible nature of regions,the notion of inside and outside powers inhabiting exclusive spheres of influence is both naïve and impractical. This is not to deny that the moves by India and China to seek greater influence in Southeast Asia and South Asia respectively will generate competitive pulls and pressures. The point is whether this will degenerate into a perverse form of competitive institutionalism or institution racing. Recall how East Asia has seen some of this with the US,China and Japan each backing its preferred regional organisations,be it the APEC,ARF,APT or the EAS. Rationalising the regions alphabet soup will be no easy effort.
The days of exclusive regionalism are clearly over,if ever they existed. The evolving regional security environment will be both complex as well as uncertain,as new players reframe key issues of regional order building. But competitive regionalism per se need not be crisis-prone as is made out to be by pessimistic assessments about Asian security. This will call for India and China to demonstrate a capacity to deal with varying levels of complexity in their relations,and above all,a capability to forge rule-based cooperative structures. It will be as much a mark of Indian diplomatic skills as of Chinas to anticipate as well as possibly prevent conflict in the region.
The writer is an associate professor at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi.