Pak Looking At Bigger SAARC To Counter India's 'Controlling Hold'

The report cited that a senior diplomat had confirmed reports that Pakistan is actively seeking a new regional arrangement.

Pakistan is exploring the possibility of creating a greater South Asian economic alliance to include China, Iran and neighbouring Central Asian republics as part of its bid counter India's influence in SAARC, a media report said today.

Pakistan's Dawn News, citing diplomatic observers, said Pakistan is exploring the possibility of creating a greater South Asian economic alliance to counter India's "controlling hold" on the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

A parliamentary delegation from Pakistan, which is now in New York, pitched this idea during its five-day visit to Washington last week, the report said.

"A greater South Asia is already emerging," Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed was quoted as saying in one of his interactions with the media.

"This greater South Asia includes China, Iran and the neighbouring Central Asian republics," he said.

He described the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir,  as the key economic route linking South Asia with Central Asia.

The Gwadar port, Mr Syed said, 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 Mr Syed.

Indians are "unlikely to accept" the offer as they are comfortable with the advantage that SAARC provides them, the report said.

"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," the report said.

Citing continuous cross border terrorism by Pakistan, India had announced last month that "in the prevailing circumstances, the Indian government is unable to participate in the proposed Summit in Islamabad."

Besides India, four other SAARC members -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan -- had also pulled out of the summit.

"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," the report said.

The report cited that a senior diplomat had confirmed reports that Pakistan is actively seeking a new regional arrangement.

"Apparently, the showdown forced Pakistan to conclude that in its present shape, SAARC will always be dominated by India. That's why we are now talking about a greater South Asia," the diplomat was quoted as saying.

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

The report quoted diplomatic observers in Washington as saying that the proposed arrangement will also suit China which is 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," the report said.

"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," it said.

The report stated that 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, it noted.

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

"Afghanistan applied for SAARC membership in 2006 and joined a year later, generating an interesting debate on the definition of South Asian identity because Afghanistan is a Central Asian country," the report claimed.

"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," it said.

"Many Central Asian states have strong ties with India and Iran too has problems with Pakistan," the diplomat was quoted as saying.