Thursday, November 10, 2011

Leaders arrive in Maldives with diverse agendas

For India it’s mainly trade liberalisation, for Afghanistan the security situation, for Pakistan both trade and anti-terrorism fight, whereas for Maldives and Bangladesh the rising sea level tops the agenda their heads of states will be pursuing during the two-day 17th meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) commencing here on Thursday afternoon.

Sri Lanka is looking for increased cooperation between members to catch up with them after winning a war against Tamil Tigers that has bled the country for decades. However, Bhutan and Nepal, the two relatively smaller members of Saarc, once again will be analysing how they can benefit from the forum which even after 26 years since its inception has failed to kick-start what to talk about serving over 1.5 billion people of the region.

Saarc came into being in Dec 1985 with the aim to promote welfare of the people of South Asia and improve their quality of life. According to analysts, the South Asian leaders have miserably failed on their collective responsibility. The intra-regional trade, another basic objective behind the creation of Saarc, is less than five per cent. Initially, it had seven member states but Afghanistan joined the bloc in April 2007.

Maybe it’s the diversity of agendas which every member state has been following over the years which has compelled the organisers to select ‘building bridges’ as the theme for this year’s Saarc summit.

“Building bridges — both in terms of physical connectivity and figurative political dialogue, however, the notion of bridging differences would be represented as the overarching theme of the summit rather than any set diplomatic aims,” a press release issued by the Maldivian foreign ministry said.

As in the past, there is every likelihood of a meeting between the Pakistani and Indian prime ministers on the sidelines of the summit, expected on Thursday, to overshadow the rest of the proceedings.

Unresolved differences between the two countries are considered a major stumbling block in making Saarc an effective regional organisation like other such bodies in other parts of the world.

Therefore, warming of ties between Pakistan and India is a must to have an operational Saarc. Otherwise it would remain a mere talk shop.

According to Pakistani delegates, barring any exceptions, the meeting between the two leaders is there on the agenda prior to the formal opening of the summit.

The two leaders are expected to thrash out differences over Pakistan’s reluctance to give the most favoured nation (MFN) status to India. India had given MFN status to Pakistan in 1996 and has been looking for reciprocity from Pakistan.

Only recently, when Information Minister Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan misreported a federal cabinet decision that the government had decided to grant the status to India, it set off such an uproar in the country that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had to

make a clarification. He said during a media interaction that the government had only allowed the commerce ministry to start negotiations with its Indian counterpart to normalise trade relations.

“Definitely, issues regarding Indian presence in Afghanistan will also be taken up during the meeting between the prime ministers,” a Pakistani official said. He said Pakistan was not against increasing collaboration between India and Afghanistan.

However, being an immediate neighbour and main victim of the American war on terror, the country needed to be consulted.

A recent defence agreement between India and Afghanistan has raised many eyebrows in Pakistan.

India expects to move forward on the liberalisation of trade under the South Asian Free Trade Agreement and will work to promote greater integration and development of a South Asian identity at the summit, Indian media quoted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as saying before his departure to Addu city.

Mr Singh also expressed hopes that the Saarc countries would sign agreements on implementation of regional standards, a multilateral arrangement on recognition of conformity assessment, rapid response to natural disasters and establishment of a Saarc seed bank during the summit.

APP adds: Prime Minister Gilani said on Wednesday before leaving for the Maldives that the importance and effectiveness of Saarc had increased manifold since Pakistan and India resumed discussing bilateral disputes.

He said the association had earlier been losing its effectiveness and could not move forward because of tense relations between the two major countries of South Asia.

“We will definitely focus on the conference’s theme of ‘building bridges’ by discussing all possible ways and means for mutual cooperation through rail, road and sea routes.”

In the Maldives, the prime minister was received at the Gan airport by President Mohammad Nasheed.


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