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Print edition : Apr 20, 2007 T+T-
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks at the 14th SAARC summit in New Delhi on April 4.-PANKAJ NANGIA/ BLOOMBERG NEWS

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks at the 14th SAARC summit in New Delhi on April 4.-PANKAJ NANGIA/ BLOOMBERG NEWS

The SAARC summit in New Delhi proves that the grouping still has a long way to go to reduce the "trust deficit" among its members.

IT was after some years that the summit of South Asian nations took place as per the schedule. Bilateral differences and political developments had led to the postponement of earlier summits on a regular basis. That this year's 14th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in New Delhi on April 3 and 4 went ahead smoothly is an illustration of the improved political climate in the region. The summit saw the formal participation for the first time of its new member, Afghanistan. However, the interview given by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to The New York Times castigating the Pakistan government for its alleged support to the Taliban somewhat soured the atmosphere of bonhomie. Three of the "observer countries" - China, South Korea and Japan, sent their Foreign Ministers to the summit. The United States and the European Union (E.U.), which also have "observer" status, also sent high-level representatives.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, in his speech, said that SAARC had "a bright future". He said that China-SAARC cooperation would greatly boost "peace, stability and development of the region". Some of the SAARC countries are in favour of China being admitted as a full-fledged member. Nepalese Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala came out openly for the inclusion of China in an expanded SAARC. Unlike other "observer" countries such as Japan and South Korea, China shares contiguous borders with four of the SAARC states.

Many in the international community are, in fact, surprised that a country like the U.S., which is from a faraway continent, has been accorded "observer" status in the South Asian regional grouping. Some diplomats based in New Delhi are of the view that decisions like these have impacted adversely on the credibility of the grouping. Russia, for instance, does not seem very keen on the grouping. Russian diplomats are of the view that SAARC is still evolving and has a long way to go. They instead feel that a grouping like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is more relevant to countries such as India, Russia and China. Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told the media that a "SWOT analysis" would show that SAARC had not been able to leverage its full potential.

At the inaugural ceremony, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put forward new initiatives to make SAARC a more meaningful regional grouping. He offered "zero duty" access to goods from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, the Maldives and Bhutan before the end of this year. Manmohan Singh, in his speech, stressed that India was ready "to accept asymmetrical responsibilities". India, he said, would no longer insist on "reciprocity" on trade issues from many of its neighbours. Trade issues with Pakistan, however, remain unresolved. By the end of this year, Pakistan will be the only SAARC country that does not have a free trade agreement with India.

Shaukat Aziz, during his interaction with the Indian media, broadly suggested that outstanding political issues should be sorted out first before free trade materialises between the two countries. Aziz said that his country was a great believer in the concept of free trade and was not afraid of India's economic clout. To illustrate his point, he said that Chinese goods were flooding the Pakistani market at virtually "zero per cent duty". According to Aziz, both Pakistani industrialists and consumers are happy with the benefits free trade has brought to the economy.

The Indian Prime Minister announced other steps to accelerate the integration process in the South Asian region. India, Manmohan Singh said, would liberalise visa procedures for scholars, journalists, students and those in need of medical help from SAARC countries. He talked about the "compelling vision" he had of a rapidly developing South Asia playing an important role on the world stage. Manmohan Singh expressed his satisfaction that SAARC member-states had started resolving their bilateral differences, which had prevented the grouping from realising its goals. He said that the time had come for all South Asian countries "to join hands to realise our shared destiny".

Similar sentiments were echoed by all other leaders in their speeches. Bangladesh's Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed said that the larger and comparatively more advanced member-states had a special responsibility to aid the less developed ones. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted a united response to the issue of terrorism from all member-countries.

He also called on the grouping to adopt speedily a "common currency" to speed up regional integration. Karzai, in his maiden speech, also focussed on the issue of terrorism. He said that work on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline should be expedited. This is the preferred pipeline of the Bush administration, which opposes the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline.

Both New Delhi and Islamabad have indicated a preference for the gas pipeline from Iran despite the objections from Washington against dealing with Teheran. Shaukat Aziz told the media that his country had "unbundled" the Iran gas pipeline from the contentious bilateral issues two years ago, so that work on the project could be expedited.

After a meeting on the sidelines between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers, the two sides announced that they would pursue the project sincerely. They expressed satisfaction over the progress made so far at the technical-level talks among the three sides. The internal situation in Afghanistan precludes any serious thought being given to the TAPI pipeline at this juncture. The SAARC car rally, which ended in Delhi on the day the summit opened, could not proceed through Afghanistan because of law and order problems.

The leaders from all the SAARC countries were, however, unanimous in their view that SAARC had not yet managed to achieve its full potential. The Pakistan Prime Minister said that the political atmosphere in South Asia still remained "vitiated by disputes and mistrust". Aziz highlighted the need to promote an environment of genuine peace and security in South Asia and reducing the "trust deficit" among member-countries. Aziz, in his interaction with the media as well as in talks with the Indian Prime Minister, did not shy away from stating that Kashmir was the most important issue standing in the way of durable peace between the two countries. During his luncheon meeting with the media, Aziz said that high-level, back-channel talks to resolve outstanding issues were making progress but the two countries still had to traverse a long distance before a lasting solution could be found.

That SAARC still has a long way to go for the "trust deficit" to be brought down was evident during the summit. India's suggestion that the SAARC nations adopt a legal assistance treaty to fight terrorism and organised crime jointly faced initial resistance from some member-countries, particularly Pakistan. SAARC member-states such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, given the problems facing their countries, were naturally supportive of the Indian initiative.

The Pakistan Prime Minister was of the view that issues related to terrorism were better handled bilaterally. He said that for the menace of terrorism to be tackled meaningfully, there was a need to delve into the root causes of terrorism. The New Delhi Declaration issued at the end of the summit had a clause mentioning India's initiative to prepare a draft for a SAARC Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters.

The member-countries have expressed their commitment to "take every possible measure to prevent and suppress, in particular, financing of terrorist acts by criminalising the provision, acquisition and collection of funds for such acts, including through front organisations". The Indian Prime Minister, in his concluding speech, said that SAARC should implement in a meaningful and sincere manner the commitment and pledge made to root out terrorism in order to create an environment for "our endeavour to succeed".

SAARC had made a commitment to fight terrorism two decades ago. An additional protocol to the 1987 SAARC Regional Convention on Terrorism was signed in 2004. But in actual practice, there is very little cooperation among SAARC members in jointly fighting terrorism.

The 14th SAARC summit was held in an atmosphere noticeably free of rancour. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee described the summit as "the least contentious" held so far. The summit ended with agreements to establish a South Asia University and a SAARC Food Bank. The New Delhi Declaration highlighted the need to develop a road map for a South Asian Customs Union in "a planned and phased manner".

The Declaration also stressed the speedy implementation of the South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement. The statement said that the "successful implementation of SAFTA will catalyse other areas of regional economic cooperation". The decision to admit Iran formally as an "observer" in SAARC was also announced at the Delhi summit.

The External Affairs Minister said that the proposed SAARC University would be a multi-campus one with its main base in India. The courses would be offered in close consultation with the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu. A South Asia Development Fund has been operationalised with an initial corpus of $300 million. The Fund will undertake specific poverty alleviation projects within six months once the Foreign Ministers give their approval. While non-members such as China are free to contribute to the SAARC Development Fund, they will have no say in the decision-making process.

In his concluding remarks, Manmohan Singh said that the regional leaders had agreed to expedite progress before the year ends on four main issues - water, including flood control; energy; food; and the environment. The year 2008 has been designated as the "SAARC Year of Good Governance".

Manmohan Singh said that he could "feel a new sense of purpose and determination among the leaders of SAARC". He emphasised that the "touchstone" in the efforts to revitalise SAARC had to be the difference made to the lives of "the poorest of the poor".

As in the case of previous SAARC summits, the meeting between the Indian and Pakistan Prime Ministers evoked great interest. Kashmir, terrorism and the Iran pipeline were the important items on the agenda. Manmohan Singh assured his Pakistani counterpart that periodic status reports on the probe into the Samjhauta Express fire-bombing of February 19 would be provided.

A press release issued after the talks said that the Indian Prime Minister reiterated Government of India's decision to pay compensation to the victims of the terrorist incidents.

The two sides also agreed to increase the number of flights between the two countries. The Prime Ministers agreed in principle to allow new branches of their respective banks to be opened in either country.

Manmohan Singh and Aziz reviewed the status of the composite dialogue and the issue of Kashmir. The statement issued by the Pakistani side said that Aziz "underscored the importance of resolving" the Kashmir issue for the sake of achieving lasting and durable peace for the region. Aziz, during his interaction with the media, said that a Northern Ireland-type of peace process should be a model to solve the Kashmir issue.

"If there is a will, we can move forward. It is our duty to bequeath to the next generation a peaceful and prosperous South Asia," he told mediapersons in Delhi.