South Asia

SAARC: All Talk

Islamabad: A magazine bears a photo of Pakistani President Musharraf's handshake with Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee, Jan. 13, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

After a two-year delay caused by Indo-Pakistani tensions, the 11th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit was finally held in Kathmandu, Nepal, on Dec. 6. Worsening conditions between the two largest countries in South Asia, now on the brink of war, overshadowed this year’s gathering, which also included the leaders of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.

The summit, whose purpose upon creation was to foster regional unity and to achieve peace, goodwill, and a better quality of life for the people of the region, has unfortunately achieved very few concrete results since its first meeting in Dhaka 16 years ago.

While this summit, like previous ones, can boast of nothing greater than more dialogue, the leaders did adopt a 56-point agenda addressing the common problems affecting the region. As in the past, poverty alleviation was at the top of the
agenda; counterterrorism also took high priority. Dainik Ittefaq (Jan. 6) said, “Following the Dec. 13 attack on the Indian Parliament, anti-terrorism has been elevated to the prime topic at the conference.”

Another one of SAARC’s main goals is the realization of economic integration through treaties like SAFTA (South Asian Free Trade Area), which was supposed to have gone into effect last year, but could not, due in part to the delayed summit. At the January session, the leaders pledged to sign a draft treaty by the end of the year. They also agreed to accelerate economic cooperation to achieve the creation of a South Asian Economic Union, similar to the European Union.

Unfortunately, SAARC has come nowhere near fulfilling its economic vision. With the main agenda of economic integration through free trade in stasis, SAARC has gained the reputation The Times of India (Jan.7) described as “a talking shop with little regional influence.” But Shyam K.C. of The Kathmandu Post (Jan. 5) noted, “The journey toward South Asian prosperity may be long and arduous but a journey, nonetheless, that must be undertaken.”

Indo-Pakistani tensions have been an impediment to SAARC’s progress. As Ananda Bazar Patrika (Jan. 4) opined, “That the enmity between these two neighboring countries has vitiated the environment of South Asia is not in any doubt.”

The summit’s most dramatic moment came when Pakistan’s leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf approached India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and offered what he called “a hand of genuine and sincere friendship.” A surprised but cautious Vajpayee reciprocated, to roaring applause.

While many, like C. Raja Mohan, writing in The Hindu
(Jan. 5), dismissed it as a “dramatic public-relations exercise” by Musharraf, others, like Saleem Yazdani in the Daily Jang (Jan. 7), insisted, “The extended hand of friendship from Pakistan’s president should be held firmly by India. Let peace and prosperity reign in the region.”