Trade, terrorism and detente SAARC focus
ISLAMABAD: South Asian heads of state flock to Islamabad this weekend for a landmark summit that is expected to forge a new terror pact, pave the way for a free trade zone and bring the leaders of Pakistan and India together for the first time since peace overtures began eight months ago.
The seven nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) - Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - make up one of the world’s most populous and poorest regions.
While a regional free trade pact - which could lift commerce among member states from 4.0 to 60 percent of their total external trade - tops the official agenda, all eyes will be on the forum’s two giants.
Will or won’t Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee make eye contact, shake hands, exchange greetings or actually chat is the region’s biggest question in the run up to the Sunday to Tuesday summit.
The region’s heads of state will be protected by a massive security blanket involving 10,000 police deployed to the usually sleepy capital, and armed soldiers perched on hills overlooking the tiny city.
The summit falls under the shadow of two assassination attempts within 11 days in December which narrowly missed killing Musharraf.
As roadblocks are erected around Islamabad city council gardeners are busy planting palm trees, bougainvillea and daisies along the main boulevardes in a last-minute beautification.
Even a replica of the Ghauri nuclear missile, which held pride of place on a busy intersection for the past five years, has been removed. The summit is the 12th in SAARC’s 18-year existence and the first since January 2002.
It was cancelled last year when India refused to send its leaders to Pakistan in the midst of fierce tensions over a December 2001 attack on its parliament, which it blamed on Pakistani-based militants.
Ruled off the agenda are bids by outside countries to join the forum, and a single South Asian currency. Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesman Masood Khan said SAARC needed to grow stronger before opening doors, and dismissed the single currency proposal as premature, albeit positive.
“In principal I think it is a good thing to do,” he told a press briefing Wednesday.
“All countries can work towards South Asian union but you have to create an atmosphere of trust, you have to resolve political disputes, you have to harmonize all financial commercial structures,” Khan said.
Founded in 1985 to foster economic cooperation among the region’s 1.4 billion consumers, SAARC’s sluggishness in realizing its objectives has been blamed mainly on hostilities between India and Pakistan.
Vajpayee’s decision to travel to Pakistan for the summit, eight months after his “hand of friendship” offer triggered a series of tie-mending gestures, has been hailed as a sign that SAARC could revive its dormant agenda.
“The significance of the upcoming summit is that it will revive the functioning of SAARC, which was stalled because the Indians were not ready to sit on a conference table with Pakistan,” said Khalid Mahmud, chairman of the Institute of Regional Studies.
India, which forms 70 percent of the total area in South Asia and holds about two-thirds of the region’s population, borders almost every SAARC nation.
“SAARC can make progress if India... settles disputes with others, including the Kashmir issue with its big neighbour Pakistan,” former Pakistani ambassador to Thailand, Kamal Matinuddin said.
But SAARC is essentially an economic forum and its charter bans the raising of contentious issues in the summit.
While Islamabad and New Delhi have not ruled out a sideline chat between Vajpayee and Musharraf, there is still no public commitment.
“This is a very long-established tradition that usually the visiting delegations and their leaders call on the host head of state or government and I think that this tradition should be respected,” he said. —AFP