By M K Bhadrakumar
Two veteran diplomats, one from China and the other an American, trudge their weary way from their respective capitals to the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to witness as "observers" a gathering of eight leaders from South Asia agonizing over the stasis of their 25-year old regional forum.
And then they retire to Beijing to exchange notes.
One year ago, such a scenario would have been considered implausible - even illogical. Yet, when Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya receives the United States Assistant Secretary of State Robert O Blake Jr at Beijing on Monday for the first meeting of the newly-formed "US-China Sub-Dialogue on South Asia", what seemed far-fetched moves into the realm of geopolitical reality.
The summit meetings of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are better known as occasions for India-Pakistan diplomatic pageantry. The 16th SAARC summit at the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu on April 28-29 was no exception. The regional media, at least, thought so.
Yet another India-Pakistan prime ministerial meeting did take place on the sidelines of the regional forum in a new attempt to breed a fresh format of dialogue as the two South Asian adversaries try to tackle their intractable differences.
The new India-Pakistan process may or may not prove enduring. However, the Thimpu summit will be seen in retrospect as a watershed event where something fundamentally changed in the alchemy of regional cooperation in South Asia. (SAARC comprises Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.)
Plainly put, cooperation - or the lack of it in comparison with most other regions on the planet - is henceforth going to be an international spectacle with the "great powers" present to take the pulse of the gyrating actors.
Equally, what emerges is that a region that withstood Cold War infections for decades may not be so lucky this time as it gears up for what Ian Brummer, president of the Eurasia Group, recently called "the fight of the century" between China and the US.
To be sure, the backdrop is unprecedented and rather intimidating. The US has become a long-term military presence in the region for the first time in history. And China, also for the first time in its history, is casting aside its millennia-old reclusiveness in Middle Asia and seems set to pole-vault over the Himalayas and become an active participant on the South Asian arena.
From ''observer' to participant
It is interesting that the US-China sparring in South Asia is beginning with a gingerly round of mutual consultation to figure out each other's hardcore perspectives and unspoken intentions. Which side took the initiative to hold the two-day consultation that begins on Monday remains unclear, but since the venue is Beijing, it appears China did.
The SAARC has seven other "observers" - Iran, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Mauritius, Australia and Myanmar - but the sub-regional meet at Beijing will keep them out. Evidently, China and the US do not have a high estimation of them (including the Europeans and the Japanese) as capable of carrying the burden of global responsibility to oversee the South Asian region's acute problems of security and stability.
All the same, the US and Chinese statements on the occasion of the SAARC summit present a study in contrast. Blake was perfunctory to the point of being protocol-minded. For the record, he congratulated the SAARC on its 25th anniversary this year and "welcomed" its "vision for greater South Asian regional cooperation". In all probability, he spent his time fruitfully elsewhere in bilateral meetings.
The US State Department spokesman in Washington awkwardly suggested that the SAARC summit was nothing terribly earthshaking: "One of a number of important structures that you have across the broader Asia region. We think they're important. We encourage them ... the secretary [Hillary Clinton] is committed to strengthen the United States' ties to other structures like ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. This is an indication of our ongoing and deepening commitment to the region."
When his turn came, on the other hand, Vice Foreign Minister Wang manifestly warmed up. He stressed Beijing's desire to "elevate friendly ties" with the SAARC to "a new level". He viewed SAARC in ideological terms, as a forum where "China stands together with developing countries".
Wang responded to the SAARC summit's focus on climate change by calling on developed countries to provide financial, technical and capacity-building assistance to enhance the ability of developing countries to cope with climate change.
"China is ready to strengthen practical cooperation with South Asian countries on climate change through bilateral channels and within the framework of South-South cooperation," he said.
Wang further assured that "on the basis and in a spirit of equality and mutual benefit, China is ready to conduct dialogue and exchanges and expand practical cooperation with SAARC". He announced a contribution of US$300,000 by China to the SAARC Development Fund and invited the body's senior officials [heads of foreign ministries] to a meeting in Beijing.
Evidently, China takes its "observer" status - which it secured in 2005 - seriously. There have been reports that China aspires to seek full membership of SAARC, but India thinks that the regional body had better remain as it is with eight member countries belonging to the geographically definable region, and the bloc's charter stipulates that all decisions need to be unanimous.
The challenge for Delhi ...
India faces an existential dilemma somewhat similar to what Russia is gradually coming across in Central Asia (and the US may face in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America or in Southeast Asia): the appearance of a red star over the slice of firmament they somehow regarded as their own sphere of influence where they claimed to have uncontestable special interests in determining the shape of the constellation.
No analogy is quite complete. Unlike Russia in Central Asia, India never ruled the South Asian region but then the enveloping cultural ambience and the shared history and geographical space and bindings of a common civilizational that flow through millennia are perhaps far more profound.
Both Russia and India have a troubled history of relations with China in modern times and have fought bloody border conflicts, but Russia has been far more successful in coming to terms with the past.
One main difference is that the Central Asian region comprises autocratic regimes for whom Russia stands between them and the deluge, whereas the South Asian countries are all democracies of one kind or the another that do not necessarily depend on India for their political survival.
Besides, South Asian countries have an altogether different perception of China than that harbored by India - China as a benefactor.
Even India's close neighbors like Nepal and Sri Lanka are eager to cultivate deeper Chinese involvement in their countries. And in the more recent past, China has been responding with noticeable alacrity, which of course causes uneasiness in the Indian mind although there is no evidence that China obstructs the expansion of India's cooperation with its regional partners.
The hard reality is that the potentials of India's economic cooperation with its neighbors - except Nepal and Bhutan which are recipients of Indian aid - remain far from explored and the emerging possibility is that China may come from behind and overtake India.
... to get its act together
Unlike India, China places primacy on its immediate neighborhood in its foreign policy and as Wang displayed, Beijing has a definite action plan with regard to carrying forward the impetus of cooperation with its South Asian neighbors.
The clock has begun ticking for India to watch out for a point when China overtakes India in terms of substantive volume of cooperation with the SAARC partners. China did a similar act on Japan (and the US) in Southeast Asia.
For India itself, China currently figures as the number one trade partner. The bilateral trade target for 2010 is US$60 billion, and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun said last week, "I believe if we make the right efforts, we can even exceed the target."
China is developing all-round cooperation with India's SAARC partners in a structured way in the economic, political and even military spheres. Curiously, China has been quite effective in the use of ''soft power'' too.
Chinese diplomacy is placing its accent on people-to-people contacts, including with India. The attempt is to repeat the phenomenal success China scored in the Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asian region by placing ''soft power'' as a cutting edge of its diplomacy.
India has annual tourist traffic of 1 million people with China, whereas the figure for South Korea stands at 5 million. The tiny island group of the Maldives hugs India's coast, yet receives more Chinese tourists than Indians.
There is no evidence that Indian diplomacy is geared for what lies ahead as China makes its presence felt as the SAARC region's key partner.
Already there is immense frustration among the SAARC countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives that the stasis of the regional body is rooted in the adversarial character of India-Pakistan ties. In an extraordinary outburst at Thimpu, Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed bluntly demanded that India and Pakistan should "compartmentalize" their mutual animosities and allow regional cooperation to gain traction.
China's profile as the South Asia's leading interlocutor highlights India's inability to lead its own sub-region and erodes its credibility as a regional power. This is the stark message that the Indian foreign policy establishment needs to cull from the Thimpu summit once the dust settles after the alluring India-Pakistan diplomatic road show there.
In hard terms, there is no escaping the fact that Delhi needs to evaluate the damage caused by the "militarization" of the Indian foreign policy mindset in the past few years. India may end up holding the wrong end of the stick through its obsession with the "string of pearls" thesis - that Beijing is encircling India. What is actually taking place is far more perilous - Chinese diplomacy may make India look ineffectual as a regional power.
The fact that Blake headed for Beijing fresh from the Thimpu summit of SAARC testifies to a geopolitical reality.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.