Source: News Bharati English12 Oct 2016 15:18:06

New Delhi, Oct 12: After being isolated in the South Asian region by India, Pakistan is exploring the possibility of creating a greater South Asian economic alliance to counter India’s stronghold on the eight-member SAARC, according to a Washington-datelined report in ‘Dawn’.

A parliamentary delegation from Pakistan, currently in New York, has put forth this idea during its five-day visit to Washington last week, the paper said.

“A greater South Asia is already emerging,” said Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, in one of his interactions with the media. “This greater South Asia includes China, Iran, and the neighbouring Central Asian republics.”

He described the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as the key economic route linking South Asia with Central Asia. The Gwadar port, he pointed out, would be the nearest warm water port, not only for China but also for the land-locked Central Asian states.

“We want India to join this arrangement as well,” said Hussain, an offer Indians are unlikely to accept as they are comfortable with the advantage that SAARC provides them.

Last month, India used its influence in SAARC to isolate Pakistan when it announced that it would not attend the regional group’s 19th summit, scheduled in Islamabad on November 15 and 16.

The report mentioned that Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Bhutan have boycotted the SAARC summit in Islamabad at the behest of India. India, the report said, had cited Pakistan’s ‘alleged involvement’ in the September 18 terrorist attack on an Army camp in Uri as the reason to boycott the summit. Following this, these three nations too, have followed the Indian line though India could not provide any evidence of Pakistan’s alleged involvement.

The boycott led to an indefinite postponement of the summit and exposed Pakistan’s isolation within the group where it once played a key role.

Among the eight SAARC nations, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are India’s strong allies while Bhutan, surrounded by India from all sides, is too small to resist any move from New Delhi.

The Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka have good ties with Pakistan, but they are not large enough to take on India.

“Apparently, the showdown forced Pakistan to conclude that in its present shape, SAARC will always be dominated by India. That’s why they are now talking about a greater South Asia,” said a senior diplomat while confirming reports that Pakistan is actively seeking a new regional arrangement.

“Pakistan hopes that this new arrangement will give it more room to manoeuvre when India tries to force a decision on it,” said another diplomat.

Diplomatic observers in Washington say that the proposed arrangement also suits China as it is also worried about India’s rapidly growing influence in the region. They 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.

The member that is likely to get the most benefits from a greater South Asian alliance is Afghanistan, which is technically a land-locked Central Asian nation. Any trade route that links South and Central Asian regions is good for Afghanistan.

But observers believe that Afghanistan is too closely linked to India to join any arrangement that hurts India’s interests.

Afghanistan’s presence in SAARC, however, justifies Pakistan’s argument that Central Asian nations can be included in a greater South Asia.

Afghanistan applied for SAARC membership in 2006, generating an interesting debate on the definition of South Asian identity because Afghanistan is a Central Asian country.

SAARC member states imposed a stipulation for Afghanistan to hold general elections, which were held in late 2005, enabling the country to join the group as its eighth member in April 2007.

But, as a South Asian diplomat pointed out, even if a greater South Asia became reality, there’s no guarantee that its members would support Pakistan in its disputes with India.

“Many Central Asian states have strong ties with India, and Iran too, has problems with Pakistan,” the diplomat added.