Research Scholar, Nepal
The role of infrastructure in the enhancement of China-South Asia relations is an area in which not a significant amount of research and analysis has been conducted to date. The pivotal nature of infrastructure development vis-à-vis China’s engagement with SAARC--especially as it may address the thematic of moving “towards a partnership of common prosperity”-would therefore appear to be a segment of the emerging discourse that must be explored and articulated in a much more systematic and vigorous manner. It is in light of this assessment that I shall address the question by focusing on infrastructure in the context of China-South Asia relations. The idea is to conceptualize this question within the framework of China’s extant bilateral relations with South Asian states and propose ways in which this can be carried forward or institutionalized in ways consistent with China’s ongoing engagement with SAARC as an institution. The principal thrust is to explore ways in which infrastructure can deliver new opportunities and generate fresh benefits to common citizens of South Asia and China once cooperation is initiated in this crucial area between the two regions. The present discussion will focus very broadly on road and railway connectivity (conventional infrastructure), and also wind and solar energy as aspects of innovative infrastructure solutions.
China’s inclusion into the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as Observer in 2006 (along with Japan, South Korea, the US and EU) creates some very interesting and compelling avenues of thinking and many options for long-term planning in respect of cooperative infrastructure development that can serve to enhance ties between China and the South Asian region by way of greater physical connectivity, facilitate more widespread economic development, stanch the deleterious effects of global climate change by promoting innovative and dynamic solutions in this area and even help mitigate the possibility of any future conflict between states of the region. The role of infrastructure in China-South Asia relations is a relatively unexplored subject, yet the need to begin conceptualizing this issue in more broad and concrete terms is now vital as part of any future efforts to jointly address a range of issues encompassing expanding trade relations, sustaining economic growth, climate change, poverty alleviation, food shortages and rising costs, energy issues, and most importantly perhaps, to fashion a new development agenda or model that would impact more than a third of the population of the world. There is an acute need to map out in comprehensive fashion infrastructure cooperation between China and South Asian countries, particularly in the area of roads, railways and wider exploration plus diffusion of renewable energy technologies encompassing wind and solar power. How such efforts can be institutionalized within the framework of SAARC-China relations must be analyzed closely. Successful cooperation between China and the South Asian region in infrastructure development would be a major hall-mark in the ongoing power shift of international politics to greater Asia. The present paper is merely a cursory evaluation-a sort of thematic sketch-and by no means an expert or systematic treatment of the subject.
At the outset it should be stressed that for all states concerned, new methods of strategic thinking and development planning will be required to move forward successfully with cooperative infrastructure development between China and South Asia. Historical animosities between countries and over-arching geo-strategic considerations, while they cannot be completely ignored, should be set aside to the extent possible. In a fundamental sense, the logic under-girding infrastructure development is that leaving certain areas and populations “unconnected” (physically, socially, intellectually and so on) and therefore isolated makes scant sense from an economic point of view and gives rise to numerous strategic vulnerabilities such as the likelihood of social discontent leading to violent insurgencies and separatist activities that “spill-over” and exert a region-wide effect. We have already witnessed this sort of phenomena. Indeed, the function of infrastructure in essence is to bridge gaps in physical terrain (bridging intellectual gaps along the way) and thereby to inject economic stimuli to produce a variety of new opportunities. On a more practical level, with the “emergence of global and regional production networks, transport and logistics aspects [that presume the existence of physical connectivity and other sound infrastructure support] have become important” (Kuroda, 2006). It is true that in Asia, “barring a few examples from the Greater Mekong Sub region, efforts to improve the region’s connectivity have mostly been made through national infrastructure projects and national policy actions” (ibid). Taken together, China and the South Asia region are currently experiencing (historically) dynamic transformations that render it imperative that we jointly embark in concerted fashion towards the achievement of common prosperity through the medium of infrastructure.
SAARC needs to Rethink Sequencing: One of the key features of cross-border infrastructure, based on the fact that it can generate entirely new possibilities, is its ability to promote greater economic and social development and therefore create conditions that promote peace and stability. This must be recognized more explicitly at the policy level, nationally and bilaterally, in an effort to converge this recognition at the multilateral space, by analyzing closely how cooperation in infrastructure can be institutionalized within SAARC, especially in a manner that subsumes the participation of important new Observers such as China and Japan who also possess the capability to provide capital and technology to help initiate this process. Indeed, the importance attached to infrastructure is highlighted in Paragraph 4 of the Declaration of the 14th SAARC Summit held in New Delhi in April 2007: “The Heads of State or Government recognized the importance of connectivity… …It was vital to first have better connectivity within South Asia and then with the rest of the world.” I would however argue that we should reconsider proposals that appear to set out this kind of “artificial” sequencing which is in fact out of sync with current developments on the ground. Infinitely better would be the idea of forging infrastructure connectivity within South Asia alongside such connectivity with areas outside the region, as the latter process is already occurring very rapidly if we look at developments in the west, east or north of the South Asian region as I shall explain. Such connectivity is particularly compelling in the context of China and South Asia, in view of the fact that China shares borders with South Asia totaling approximately 5,700km, much greater for example than the lengthy border separating Russia and China (3,605km) or the border separating the United States from Mexico (3,141km). The problem is that physical connectivity and cooperation in other aspects of infrastructure development have lagged between China and the South Asian region relative to such cooperation between China and ASEAN or for that matter between India and ASEAN or the Southeast Asian region, the benefits of which I would like to briefly highlight below. So really the urgency for China and South Asian states in forging cooperation in infrastructure stems from the extremely low base of existing partnerships and programs in this key area upon which we must resolve to build much more vigorously in future.
Next : South Asia already connecting with External Regions in a few days: Ed.