SAARC Summit: Intra-regional trade top on agenda

The two-day SAARC Summit is expected to move forward on liberalising trade under its free trade agreement.

Addu: Leaders of SAARC countries,
including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, will meet here
on to discuss a range of regional issues with a focus on
boosting intra-regional trade which stands at USD 1.3 billion.

The two-day SAARC Summit is expected to move forward on
liberalising trade under its free trade agreement and ink new
deals on regional standards, rapid response to national
disasters and establishment of a seed bank.

Prime Minister Singh leads a high-level delegation to the
17th SAARC summit of the 8-nation grouping that is meeting in
Maldives for the third time but what is unique about this
meeting is that it is taking place in Addu City, the southern
most point of the island nation, lying south of the Equator in
Seenu Atoll.

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, National Security
Adviser Shivshankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai
are part of the Indian delegation to the Summit, which will be
attended among others by Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza
Gilani, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and Nepal Prime
Minister Baburam Bhattarai.

With `Building Bridges` as the theme in the Summit, the
SAARC is working to intensify regional integration and develop
a South Asian identity. Implementing the provisions of the
South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) remains central to
creating a more prosperous region.

Singh said as much in his departure statement in Delhi
when he expressed the hope that the SAARC nations expect to
move forward on the process of liberalisation of trade under

"We also expect to sign agreements on Implementation of
Regional Standards, Multilateral Arrangement on Recognition of
Conformity Assessment, Rapid Response to Natural Disasters and
establishment of a Seed Bank," he said.

Singh said India would work to promote greater
integration as well as the development of a South Asian
identify at tomorrow`s summit.

He said over the last 26 years of its existence, SAARC
has established itself as the leading mechanism for regional
cooperation in South Asia. It has enabled enhanced cooperation
within the region in a wide range of areas such as trade,
connectivity, poverty alleviation, food security, women and
child development, combating organised crime and terrorism
among others.

Intra-regional trade currently stands at USD 1.3 billion.
It has also created new institutions to promote regional
integration such as the South Asian Regional Standards
Organisation, the South Asian Development Fund and the South
Asian University which is based in New Delhi.

Singh said India welcomed the theme of the Summit,
"Building Bridges", because it has always emphasised the
importance of enhanced connectivity for the socio-economic
development of the South Asian region.

"We have undertaken several initiatives to improve
connectivity on a bilateral, sub-regional and regional basis,
and are willing to do much more. The theme is also in
consonance with the observance of the current decade as the
SAARC Decade of Intra-Regional Connectivity," he said.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
(SAARC) comprise of seven founding members Bangladesh, Bhutan,
India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Afghanistan
joined the organisation in 2005 as its eighth member.

Indian officials point out that the India`s neighbourhood
at the moment was far in a better position now than at anytime
in the recent past with relations with Pakistan on a positive
note with the latest decision of Islamabad granting Most
Favoured Nation status to India marking the situation.

In Nepal, democratisation process was in full swing with
integration of the erstwhile Maoists, while security concerns
with Bangladesh have been addressed.

They point out that the SAFTA, entered into in 2004, was
working well while ASEAN has still not been able to frame a
free trade agreement and EU had some restrictions in some

They said while they do not expect rabbits out of every
summit, the SAARC grouping was at a stage when it should
implement its decisions.

Issues of importance to individual nations would also
come up at the summit like the climate change issue which was
very important for hosts Maldives, which fears it could become

However, sources said India was not in favour of further
expansion of the grouping even at the level of observers
saying it would impinge on the capacity of the grouping to
carry forward.

Equally it was against making SAARC a security forum
given the fact that Indo-Pak issues would overshadow the
grouping. Even at the last summit in Thimphu, President
Nasheed of Maldives had given vent to his feelings of dismay
that Indo-Pak issues tend to dominate the SAARC summits.

India`s effort is to keep politics out of economy and to
keep issues like Af-Pak out of SAARC summit because these
issues would make the grouping hostage to least common
denominators, sources said.


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