The 17th SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit held last week must be one of the only international meetings that has more official observers than members: nine observers compared with eight members.
Part of the problem is the difficult in finding unanimity among members Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka over who should be allowed in next. At present, Australia, Burma, China, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, the European Union, South Korea and the United States are observers, with Burma and Iran keen on becoming full-fledged members. But for now, at least, there seems to be a hold on anyone new joining. The “China factor” is largely responsible for this, with Pakistan pushing for China’s inclusion in SAARC, while India resists the idea of China as a South Asian power. The result is deadlock.
In the meantime, the latest summit was themed “Building Bridges” and concluded with a slew of agreements aimed at improving intra-SAARC connectivity, trade, and cooperation over key issues like education and tourism. A major highlight of the conference was that SAARC decided to consider reducing non-tariff barriers and ad valorem duties to promote freer trade.
India has already announced that the sensitive list for Least Developed Countries under SAFTA has been reduced from 480 tariff lines to just 25. The Addu Declaration, meanwhile, adopted a 20-point charter, with all points focusing on connectivity among SAARC nations in areas including travel, trade, climate change, and counterterrorism.
One good thing that emerged from the summit is that 26 years since its inception, the regional grouping has of late started showing signs of maturity, and the spirit of a new beginning. If SAARC wants to emulate the European Union, intra-cooperation is of vital importance and the two nuclear weapon state members – India and Pakistan – must take the lead in putting their bilateral agendas on the back burner for multilateral purposes. The Addu summit therefore marked a significant beginning in this context.