International relations analysts have called for a move to strengthen South Asian integration for the sake of improving the lives of its huge population, and ensure human rights and protection of the environment.
They said, as China-US rivalry continues to grow, these powers will continue to have their influence in the region that has been least integrated so far because of a trust deficit. China has lucrative economic offers to the smaller South Asian countries but they run risks of debt trap and authoritarian rule.
As the coronavirus pandemic is re-exposing the fragility amid non-cooperation, it is high time the regional countries come together, remove their distrust and cooperate each other in economic, social, environmental development, analysts said.
India, as a major economy of the region, has even a greater role to play here, they observed at a webinar titled "In the shadow of Dragon: Globalisation and Fractured Future of South Asia" organised by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) today.
Ali Riaz, a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University, said the rise of China and its influence on South Asia has put India in a difficult situation as smaller countries of the region are being drawn towards China because of its lucrative economic offers under the Belt and Road Initiative.
India, the major regional power, had to play an important role for the regional economic integration, but it has not done so -- a situation that facilitated China's entry into the regional spheres of influence. For example, SAARC has been almost made into a dysfunctional regional body despite its immense potential, he added.
Ali Riaz said while Delhi has been focusing on political relations with its neighbours, China is doing the same. It is not the fact that the countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh are very happily embracing China -- they are balancing between China and India.
However, these countries need to keep in mind that China's authoritarian approach in governance and economy, risks of debt trap as well as human rights issues, he said.
Prof Sanjay K Bhardwaj of International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, observed that China is coming into South Asia mainly because it's a huge market with 1.8 billion population and that the smaller countries of the region run risks of becoming ineffective due to heavy influence of China.
Prof Sanjay said India has been helping the countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka for economic and democratic development and that needs to be recognised.
Dr Pramod Jaiswal, research director at the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement, said India's major problem in South Asia remains with Pakistan, and that's a factor that results in SAARC remaining infective as India moves to other sub-regional groups like BIMSTEC and BBIN.
"India-Pakistan bilateral relations should not overshadow SAARC," he said. On the other hand, US and Japan also took South Asia as granted. Meanwhile, China is taking South Asia seriously and going ahead with its political and economic strategies, he added.
While there is competition between China and India, the regional countries should maintain power balance, which largely depends on how the political and economic governance the individual states functions, Dr Pramod said.
Dr Subho Basu of McGill University, Canada; Nasim Firdaus, president of Bangladesh Alliance for Women Leadership, Dr Adnan Rafiq, country director at the US Institute of Peace; Amir Rana, Pak Institute for Peace Studies also spoke, while Zillur Rahman, executive director of CGS, moderated the webinar.