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Kathmandu: Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives on Wednesday called for an increased role for observers like China at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), an idea opposed by India.

Apart from China, there are eight observers at Saarc summits—the US, Myanmar, Iran, Japan, South Korea and the European Union.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was the second to speak at the Saarc opening ceremony on Wednesday, said, “I wish to emphasize the importance of the role of Saarc observers. Saarc can benefit from its interaction with them."

“We should build on convergences and minimize divergences and most of all, seek to augment complementarities for the greater good of the people of the region," he said.

Supporting this view was Sri Lanka’s president Mahinda Rajapakse, who sought “result-oriented partnerships" with observers. Maldives president Abdullah Yameen was another supporter for an enhanced role for observers at SAARC.

China, which became an observer in 2006, has been pushing for a permanent membership. India, the largest Saarc member which considers South Asia within its sphere of influence, has always been opposed to the idea of its bigger neighbour joining the club.

According to analysts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to Saarc heads of government to attend his swearing-in ceremony was aimed at rescripting ties with India’s neighbours, who seemed to be leaning towards China. Modi’s choice of Bhutan and Nepal as destinations for his early overseas visits, besides his wooing them with generous lines of credit and other sops also reinforced this idea.

Modi’s moves come at a time when China has been wooing Saarc countries to join the $40 billion Silk Road fund to finance infrastructure investments.

According to critics of SAARC, China’s advance has been aided by squabbling between India and Pakistan that has been blamed for stalled integration in a region that is home to a fifth of the world’s population but has poor connectivity.

In his remarks at the SAARC opening ceremony, Liu Zhenmin, vice-minister of foreign affairs of the People’s Republic of China said his country supported accelerating connectivity to South Asia. Lui said China has deepened cooperation in trade, investment and agriculture in SAARC since it became an observer in 2006. Chinese investments into South Asia amounted to $30 billion and Chinese loans at concessional rates to South Asia amounted to $25 billion. Besides this, China was giving 10,000 scholarships for South Asian students, apart from providing skills training to thousands of others. Stating that SAARC is the organisation keeping South Asia vibrant, Lui said, “China is delighted to see progress in SAARC".

“National Security Advisor (Ajit Doval) will be travelling to Sri Lanka and Maldives" later this month and early next month to discuss maritime security issues, external affairs ministry Sspokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said, without giving details. It is expected that Doval will raise the issue of Chinese submarines docking in Sri Lankan ports and Maldives agreeing to be part of the Chinese maritime Silk Route with the leaders of Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

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