Security issues may cloud trade agenda at SAARC summit
Friday, 01 August 2008

Colombo, July 30 (bdnews24.com/Reuters) - Leaders of South Asia, home to a fifth of humanity, meet this weekend at a summit aiming to boost trade and reduce poverty but a wave of deadly bombings in India, its biggest member, means terrorism could dominate the agenda.

Formed more than 20 years ago to foster economic development in one of the world's poorest regions, old rivalries among members have blocked any meaningful progress for the eight-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC.

SAARC summits are often little more than a backdrop to the bilateral meeting between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan.

Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, the Maldives, Bangladesh and Afghanistan make up the rest of SAARC.

The Aug. 2-3 heads of state summit in Sri Lanka will be held under the shadow of a string of bomb blasts in India, and another at its embassy in Kabul last month, which India blamed on Pakistan's spy agency. The attacks together killed more than 100 people.

"Terrorism is an elephant in the drawing room," C. Uday Bhaskar, New Delhi-based foreign policy analyst, told Reuters.

"It is a major challenge for the region and it will be very odd if the countries meet and don't discuss it."

The summit is also being held a country fighting a 25-year civil war, now in a decisive stage, with the government pursuing a strategy to gradually retake rebel stronghold samid an almost daily barrage of land, sea and air attacks. The conflict has killed more than 70,000 people.

The Tamil Tigers had declared a 10-day unilateral truce as a goodwill gesture for the summit but the government dismissed it saying it was sceptical of the rebel's sincerity.

Officials say no major agreements are expected -- accords could include one to launch a SAARC Development Fund (SDF), a pact on regional legal cooperation to fight crimes and a fund to manage the food and energy crisis.

"Food crisis is a global crisis and it has regional implication," Sri Lanka foreign ministry spokesman, Prasad Kariyawasam, said. "The SAARC community will address this issue."

STYMIED TRADE

Intra-SAARC commerce remains at just over five percent of South Asian nations' total trade, compared to other regional forums such as Asean's internal trade at 26 percent.

"The SAARC perhaps is the only region in the world which has not learnt lessons from the rapid development around the world," said Tariq Sayeed, president of the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Progress has also been stymied due to domestic politics such as Pakistan refusing to give India special trade preferences.

Pakistan says trade relations will improve once India addresses Kashmir, the bone of contention between the two sides who claim the disputed region in full but rule it in part, and have twice gone to war over it.

Security problems are roiling other SAARC nations too.

While Afghanistan battles a resurgent Taliban and its effects singe Pakistan's western borders, a long conflict drags in Sri Lanka. Nepal still does not have a government and Bangladesh's army-backed administration struggles to hold elections.

"The recent bomb blast in Kabul emphasises how vulnerable South Asia continues to be to terrorism," Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said recently.

Mukherjee is expected to send a strong message to his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi, sounding out Islamabad's new civilian government.

Although relations have improved due to a cautious peace process started in 2004, the two sides have made little headway over Kashmir. India says Pakistan continues to back a Muslim separatist revolt in Indian Kashmir that has killed thousands of people over 20 years.

But politics still precedes trade in a region which largely encompasses all of British colonial India.

"They will be seen as trying to push forward the entire agenda, but bilateral issues will affect the atmosphere," said Shashank, India's former foreign secretary.

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