The expo was billed as an attempt to deepen China’s economic ties in the region

As Communist Party of China (CPC) Politburo member Ma Kai on Thursday announced the start of a new chapter in China’s economic engagement with South Asia, he held aloft the arm of Sri Lankan Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, flanked by leaders from Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Maldives.

Conspicuous by their absence was any representative from India, which has looked on with some ambivalence as its neighbours have appeared to eagerly lend their support to an expanded Chinese economic presence in the region.

On Thursday, China launched its first-ever South Asia Exposition, an event described by Mr. Ma, who is also a Vice-Premier, as an attempt to deepen China’s economic ties in the region. The expo is an upgraded version of a commodities fair that Kunming hosts every year, signalling the Central government’s backing to an event it had earlier largely ignored.

Officials in the provincial government of Yunnan — a green, mountainous border province southeast of Tibet and bounded by Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam — say that China’s attempts to engage with South Asia economically have trailed behind other border-driven efforts. For instance, Xinjiang has received significant Central assistance to boost links with Central Asia, while Guangxi had led plans to push ties with Southeast Asia.

While Yunnan officials say they believed Beijing had earlier moved slowly due to Indian sensitivities, this no longer appears to be the case.

Larger “blueprint”

Mr. Ma on Thursday said the launch of the expo was tied to a larger “blueprint” unveiled by the new leadership to boost development in border regions. China, he said, would follow up the event by taking forward plans to increase regional connectivity.

He said Premier Li Keqiang’s proposals, made during his recent visits to India and Pakistan, to accelerate long-discussed plans to build a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor and a Xinjiang-Pakistan corridor underscored this intent.

Yunnan government officials told The Hindu that they saw the reference to the BCIM corridor in the joint statement issued after Mr. Li’s visit as a reflection of signs of a new willingness from India to look past security and strategic considerations.

“We’ve backed this plan for a decade, but until last year, India would not send a government-level representative to BCIM meetings,” the official said.

“Now we see a change, which we hope can push things forward”.

India declined to send a high-level representative to Thursday’s event. While China had requested the presence of a ministerial delegate, India decided that the event that was essentially a commodities and retail fair — regardless of the new billing China had accorded it — did not merit such a level of participation.

Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Commerce Asit Tripathi was the sole official representative at the event, although 100 Indian exhibitors — many of whom were earlier participants in the annual commodities fair — were present.

India’s neighbours appeared more enthused about the event. Mr. Jayaratne said the government under Mahinda Rajapaksa backed a greater Chinese economic presence in the region, while Nepal Vice-President Parmanand Jha detailed plans to build a special economic zone along the border with China and courted Chinese investment in hydropower projects.

Gowher Rizvi, an adviser to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, voiced his government’s support for road and rail links between Kunming, Yangon in Myanmar and the strategically significant port at Chittagong.

He said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina planned to attend the fair, but was unable to be present owing to the unveiling of the national budget in Dhaka on Thursday.

Perhaps the biggest endorsement came from the Maldives. Ahmed Saleem, current Secretary-General of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), announced at the opening ceremony that a special session of the standing committee of SAARC foreign secretaries would be held later this year to debate on expanding the role of observer countries such as China.

Another attendee from the Maldives, Permanent Secretary Hassan Shifau, said the island nation was currently preparing a paper to make a case for a revised role for observer countries, with China having declared its willingness to step up investments.

“We need to rethink our model of cooperation with observers,” he said. “For instance, India is now investing in Asean,” he said adding that China could do likewise in South Asia. “For SAARC, it is a great opportunity to have an economic powerhouse extend economic cooperation,” he said. “So it makes me wonder why we haven’t taken this opportunity.”