Foreign Secretary Shayam Saran on Saturday expressed surprise over the sudden glitches over admitting Afghanistan as the eighth member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
Addressing journalists after the end of the first day of the 13th summit in Dhaka, he also highlighted certain segments of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's address to the opening session earlier in the day.
"The 13th SAARC summit was inaugurated this morning and the Bangladesh prime minister has now formally taken over the chairmanship of SAARC,' Saran began. 'I would like to highlight certain sections of the speech that the Indian prime minister gave this morning, and point to certain specific and far reaching measures he made.
"He put it in the context of the overall phenomenon of Asian economic resurgence, and even beyond that, in the context of globalisation. If South Asia wishes to be part and parcel of this larger larger Asian resurgence, if we really want to be in a position to exploit the opportunities that are being thrown up by the process of globalisation, then it must integrate itself in the larger picture. And 'we cannot really hope to be in the larger picture if we are disconnected within SAARC,' said Saran. The prime minister had 'pointed out for example that in South Asia, we have not even been able resume the interconnections, which existed at the time of our indepencence.
"Even if we can take it back to that point of connectivity, that itself would be very major step forward. So, a very clear message, that if we really wish SAARC to move ahead, if we really want to achieve our dream of a South Asian economic union, unless we move forward to inter-connect within South Asia and interconnect from South Asia to the larger Asian capitals, then we cannot really move forward in any significant manner.
"In an attempt to demonstrate our commitment, the prime minister also proposed a virtual open skies policy for South Asia. He has opened the doors for many more flights between the important cities of India and our neighbouring countries. In the case of just one country, Sri Lanka, the opening up of the airspace between the two nations has already resunted in something like over a 100 flights a week between Sri Lanka and India. Now we would like to see that happen with all our neighboring countries," said Saran.
The other important proposal, said Saran, was that of setting up of a South Asia university. "This would be centre of excellence, which would bring to one place the top academicians, bright students from each of our neighbouring countries, and it would serve as a kind of a a meeting place for the exchange of ideas, be a centre of creativity, giving play to the creativity of the very talented people in the entire South Asian region. We would like this dream to be realised within the next four to five years," the foreign secretary said.
But, Saran continued, "The prime minister also drew attention to the fact that if we are talking about opening up of borders, the free flow of people across borders, then it is also incumbent upon us to look at the negative dimensions to this, for instance a phenomenon like terrorism. Unless there is a very clear understanding amongst all the countries of this region, that there cannot be any tolerance of phenomenon like cross-border terrorism, or giving any kind of haven, or sanctuary to terrorists or criminal elements, how do we take forward this idea of open borders? So this is something that came across, that terrorism is a scourge, terrorism is a challenge which we all face in this region.
"Dr Singh also referred to the fact that South Asia, particularly during the past one year, has faced a major crisis due to natural disasters -- the tsunami and then the aftermath of a earthquake, which affected both India and Pakistan. He pointed out that it was important for all the countries in the region to put their hands together for disaster preparedness and management.
"We are happy that India's capabilities in this field have been recognised, and the proposed SAARC centre for disaster management will be located in India, with various branches in the capitals of member nations," Saran said.
"One decision which has been taken would be of interest to you (journalists) because there is a major visa liberalisation that is taking place among the South Asian countries, a number of new categories are sought to be added for visa free travel, under the SAARC sticker, which is currently limited to important categories like members of Parliament and cabinet ministers or constitutional heads of institutions.
"We have now sought to expand that list and one of the categories which would benefit from that would be journalists," he said.
THE CHINA FACTOR
"Before we came to Dhaka," said Saran, "we had come prepared for allowing the membership of Afghanistan to SAARC. Our soundings had indicated that there should not be any opposition to this from the members of the SAARC. That continues to be case, we do not see any opposition to Afghanistan's membership.
"But there was also another application, and that from China, to be associated in some cooperative manner with SAARC. China had approached us as well as some other member states in the recent past, seeking some kind of a relationship with SAARC. We thought it would be a good thing to have a very dynamic, growing economy, like China, which is a very important neighbour of South Asian countries, to be associated in a cooperative manner with SAARC. Certainly India came prepared to accept that.
"However, in the meantime, during the meeting of the standing committee, there was a fresh application from China which was circulated by the chair, which was Pakistan, where interest was expressed in being associated with SAARC specifically as an observer or a dialogue partner.
"Now it had already been decided that a special session of the standing committee would be meeting sometime in 2006, maybe March or April, which would be specifically looking into the criteria to be adopted for admitting observers or dialogue partners and the modalities of their becoming observers or dialogue partners.
"There was also a study conducted by the secretariat looking at some other regional organisations, like Association of South East Asian Nations, as to what are the practices that they follow when admitting observers or dialogue partners. So we wanted to look at these ideas, and on the basis of a consensus thus arrived at, we would look at the applications from various nations. In the past, countries like Japan and the US had expressed an interest in having some sort of an observer status.
"But we also felt that at the same time, that those countries that had expressed such an interest need not wait until that happens. We could utilise the mechanism that we already have for cooperation with some major countries like Japan, Germany, the EU, Canada, who have some cooperation with SAARC.
"So we had recommended that pending these criteria and modalities being worked out, we should take the initiative to invite China to become a partner in cooperation, in some sense. So, we would have worked some areas in which we could cooperate.
"Our sense was that all delegations did agree with the admission of Afghanistan as full member, to invite china as a MoU partner pending the working out of certain guidelines, and modalities, regarding the admission of observers or dialogue partners.
"But so far, we still haven't been able to conclude the discussions on the subject, because there has been an opinion expressed that perhaps these two are linked in some manner. We hope that we have some successes in this regard before the summit concludes Sunday.
"If Afghanistan is invited as the eighth member of the group, I think that would be a very positive message to go out from this summit. It should also be a positive message of inviting China, to engage and cooperate," said Saran.
Earlier, at the inaugural summit, Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz had said that "this Dhaka summit will also be remembered as a landmark event for we would welcome the brotherly country of Afghanistan to the SAARC family. Inclusion of Afghanistan will undoubtedly enrich our organisation and add to its strength. We also welcome the interest of friend and neighbor China to be associated with our organisation as an observer or a dialogue partner."
TRADE AND OTHER ISSUES
According to Saran, it was "remarkable that the proceedings, whether of the programming or the standing committee, the council of ministers Friday, the discussions were friendly, the atmosphere was very good, there was a meeting of minds on almost every subject that we discussed."
There was also a sense that we've been around now for 20 years, and we've been talking about cooperation. There were a number of panels and committees set up, and yet we still don't have one single collaborative venture within the member states.
"The third, and most important factor of the summit would be the South Asia Free Trade Area," he said. "We are making every effort possible to ensure that SAFTA comes into operation from January 1, 2006. And this will be a very strong message going out of the summit here, that we must adhere to this schedule.
"While most of the problems have been taken care of, there are still three areas which need to clarified. One is the area of negative list, that is, the exclusion of certain commodities which would not fall within the ambit of the free trade regime. Naturally, the effort hits the entire concept, because if every country puts up a negative list, the very idea of free trade is undermined.
"So our effort is to see whether we can narrow this list to the minimum that is required," he said.
"Second, we also have an issue with localisation, that is, home of origin. That means that while we should have free trade with regard to goods, which are actually produced by the member states, but it should not become a way for goods diverted from a third country. So we have to ensure that the benefits of the trade go to some country of the region, and it does not become a route for goods re-routed from other countries. My information is that we are very close to an agreement on this.
"The third element, which is a little more difficult to resolve, is that of compensation for the least developed countries. Because they have a point, that if they are going into a free trade agreement, it means they have to reduce their custom or export duties, which would mean a loss of revenue. And therefore, at least in the initial stages, for a specific period, there should some compensations given to them.
"What is important is that this principle has been agreed to, but now the question is, what would be the scope of this compensation, and for how long?
"On this, too, my impression is that differences have been narrowed, and the next meeting, which hopefully will be the final meeting of the committee of experts, is taking place on December 30, which would allow us to put in place the agreement from January 1," he said.