KATHMANDU: The spotlight is on Pakistan at the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Leaders of South Asian countries voiced “disappointment “ at the stalling of the three key pacts on road and rail connectivity and energy-sharing by Pakistan, which refused to go along with these SAARC agreements which were expected to be headline outcomes of the SAARC summit on grounds that its internal processes were not complete.
The eight-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation operate on the basis of consensus, which effectively means that even if one nation does not go along with agreed outcomes by the rest of SAARC states, no SAARC agreement is possible.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who made a robust pitch for intensifying regional integration on all tracks, held bilateral meetings with the leaders of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka on the sidelines of the 18th SAARC summit November 26. He had held extensive bilateral discussions with his Nepalese counterpart Sushil Koirala on November 25. In all his meetings, there was an undercutting theme on the failure of the SAARC integration process to move ahead due to Pakistan’s lack of readiness to sign on the dotted lines.
“They were more than a little disappointed ( at the failure of the SAARC connectivity and energy-related pacts to go through), ” Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesperson of India’s external affairs ministry, told journalists at the end of a long-day of back-to-back diplomatic engagements by the Indian prime minister. The spokesperson stressed that the leaders, in their discussions with Mr Modi, said that “this did not augur well for the region. “
The spokesperson added that they were looking for a possible review at the retreat of SAARC leaders that will be held at Dhulikhel near Kathmandu on November 27, which will be followed by the adoption of the Kathmandu Declaration. There is a slight window of opportunity at the retreat session if Pakistan relents and plays along with these pacts, but the chances are extremely bleak for now.
The pacts on free movement of motor vehicles across the South Asian countries, enhancing intra-region rail connectivity and a framework agreement on sharing energy were expected to be substantive outcomes at the 18th SAARC summit that would have decisively refuted sceptics who are prone to dismiss the regional grouping as a glorified talk shop trading in high-falutin platitudes, with not much to show on the ground.
In his speech at the plenary of the opening of the SAARC summit in the morning, Mr Modi has conjured up a radiant picture of South Asia of flowering dreams and his exhortation that it was time for the region to awaken to new opportunities and time to act on projects of connectivity, intra-regional economic linkages and energy-sharing.
India will move ahead
India, on its part, clarified that these pacts were not India’s proposals but those of the SAARC secretariat, and underlined that despite the temporary stalling of these pacts, India will march ahead on bilateral track or through the path of sub-regional integration. We will enhance our bonds with South Asian countries or otherwise we will move on our own, with or without SAARC, said Syed Akbaruddin.
“SAARC does not stand or collapse on the basis of these agreements. There is always tomorrow,” said the spokesperson.
On the bilateral track, India and Bangladesh have already forged links through rail, road, power and transit. India and Nepal, too, have started a new bus link and signed a landmark power trading agreement. India and Bhutan have robust multi-faceted cooperation in the area of hydropower and economic cooperation. With Sri Lanka, India has transformed its economic ties trade through a Free Trade Agreement and is planning to launch a new arrangement to meet Maldives’ need for oil.
In his speech, Mr Modi unveiled a slew of new unilateral initiatives in areas of education, business, public health and IT, and offered to launch a SAARC satellite by 2016.
(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org, a portal and e-journal focused on international affairs and the India Story. He is in Kathmandu to report and analyse the 18th SAARC summit)
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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