Elizabeth Roche, AFP
New Delhi: South Asian leaders were meeting in India Tuesday for a fresh attempt at boosting lacklustre trade and cooperation within a regional body widely viewed as a forum for talk and not action.
Officials said South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member states — who account for nearly 1.5 billion people or one-fifth of humanity — badly needed to overcome mutual suspicions and work harder if they wanted to inject new momentum into the bloc.
But with progress slow on the main South Asian dispute between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, and with each member preoccupied with its own internal conflicts, few observers expected any meaningful results to emerge from the two-day summit which opens later Tuesday in New Delhi.
According to an Indian diplomat, SAARC nations “have realised that there has been too much talk” in past meetings of the bloc, set up in 1985 as a collective development platform to do business with wealthier cousins, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Union.
“We are at a defining moment in SAARC history,” Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said, saying the summit represented “a collective opportunity to leapfrog and undertake a quantum jump for development.”
SAARC is made up of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — or half the world’s poor. War-torn Afghanistan will also be formally inducted into the bloc at the summit.
Major powers such as China, the European Union, Japan, South Korea and the United States will be attending as observers, a sign of the region’s potential.
SAARC has also given preliminary approval for Iran to be granted observer status, something certain to anger Western diplomats.
“The aim is to make SAARC an effective regional organisation,” Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona told reporters.
“Its potential remains to be realised. One of our objectives will be to push SAARC along to see that it delivers,” he said on the eve of the summit, themed “Economic and Physical Connectivity”.
Iftekar Ahmed Chowdhury, Bangladesh’s interim foreign minister, also lamented the bloc’s lack of achievements.
Member states, he said, “have proceeded with circumspection” when it came to cooperation.
But pushing the free trade agenda will prove an uphill struggle in a region of seasoned economic protectionists.
A South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), which came into force last year as was presented as crucial to boosting living s4andards, is yet to be fully implemented thanks to ongoing bickering between India and Pakistan.
Intra-regional trade remains mired at five percent of the countries’ total.
On security issues, likely to be feature high on the agenda, SAARC member states also differ on how to tackle violence across the region or are preoccupied by overriding domestic issues.
India and Pakistan are more at home trading bitter allegations, with one side viewing the other as the source of most if not all evils. Observers, however, will be keeping a close eye on any bilateral talks.
Nepal’s delegation is likely to have its eye on developments at home, where a new cabinet has been formed to include former Maoist rebels for the first time as part of a fragile peace process that ended a decade of civil war.
Bangladesh — the birthplace of SAARC — is also in political limbo, with a military-backed interim government with emergency powers engaged in a major anti-corruption drive.
Sri Lanka’s uncompromising government will be looking for support to deal with Tamil Tiger rebels in the island’s north and east, where the intensity of Asia’s longest-running civil war has increased in recent months.
And new member Afghanistan, seen by the group as a gateway to Central Asian markets, remains dogged by its own conflict and accuses Pakistan of sheltering Taliban rebels.