The moratorium, agreed in September, was one of the reasons fresh attempts by countries like Pakistan for the South Asian regional grouping to accord a more active role to China did not succeed during a Saarc summit in Kathmandu in November.
The eight-member Saarc currently has nine observers at Saarc summits: China, the US, Myanmar, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Mauritius and the European Union (EU). While representatives of the observer nations are allowed to sit and speak in the inaugural and concluding sessions, they are not allowed to engage in negotiations or vote on matters discussed at summits.
In September, during discussions under the working committee meeting of Saarc members in Kathmandu, a majority of members supported a proposal to elevate China’s status to a dialogue partner citing the example of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) grouping, an official in the ministry of external affairs said, under condition of anonymity.
Dialogue partners can have much deeper economic and strategic engagement with member countries. The 10-member Asean has assigned dialogue partner status to countries such as India, China and Japan with whom it later signed free trade agreements.
India became a sectoral dialogue partner of the Asean in 1992, which was upgraded to full dialogue partnership in 1996. India subsequently signed a free trade agreement in goods with the Asean in 2009.
India, however, is of the view that most of the observers at Saarc have not been active, restricting themselves to conducting a few training programmes or seminars. It proposed in the programme committee meeting in September that for five years, members should monitor what observers do and then take a call if somebody’s status needs to be upgraded.
“This has been put on record and agreed by all members. This is all written and have been approved by the foreign ministers," the official said.
“Now, observers need to give projects for Saarc member countries in seven earmarked areas which will then be appraised and approved by the programming committee. Then, it needs to be communicated to the secretariat which will take a final call on whether the observer country can carry out the programme," the official added.
In November, during the 18th Saarc summit in Kathmandu when some countries raised the issue at the foreign secretary-level talks, Indian officials told them that a decision has already been taken on the matter in September, and the matter need not be opened up again.
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, speaking at the Saarc opening ceremony in Kathmandu, 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."
Supporting his view, Sri Lanka’s then president Mahinda Rajapaksa sought “result-oriented partnerships" with observers. Maldives President Abdullah Yameen was a third votary for an enhanced role for observers.
China, which became a Saarc observer in 2006, has been pushing for a greater role in the regional grouping aiming to formalize its growing economic clout in the region.
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.
China has been expanding its investments in the Saarc member countries by building infrastructure projects. Its investments in South Asia currently amount to $30 billion and Chinese loans at concessional rates to South Asian countries stand at $25 billion.
However, former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said there is nothing inevitable about China joining Saarc. “There is no way that China can become a member of Saarc. All decisions in Saarc are taken by consensus. Other countries are not in a position to put pressure on India on this count."