Saarc: Will there be a Modi-Sharif meet?

Syed AkbaruddinKATHMANDU (NEPAL): India on Tuesday rejected a demand by some Saarc member states to give a stronger role to China and other observer countries within the regional body.

“As far as we are concerned, we need to first deepen cooperation among Saarch (members) before we try and move horizontally,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin (photo) told mediapersons on the sidelines of the 18th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Kathmandu which begins Wednesday.

The move comes amid growing pressure from Beijing and some Saarc countries, seeking the role of dialogue partner or full membership to play a more influential role in the eight-nation association.

Sources said the Pakistani delegation had sought a stronger role for observers, particularly China, within a Saarc framework during the meeting of the council of ministers of member states.

The regional group currently counts Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan as its members.

Saarc also has nine observers — Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mauritius, Myanmar and the USA.

Observers in the regional body are not allowed to be part of deliberations and their participation is limited to the inaugural and closing sessions of the summit.

In contrast, a dialogue partner nation can express its views on issues during the summit or other meetings preceding it.

The much-speculated meeting between prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif may also not take place on Wednesday.

Modi is scheduled to meet several heads of state on the opening day of the summit but no meeting with Sharif is in the pipeline. There is, however, still a chance that the two could meet during the retreat on Thursday planned at Dhulikhel, outside Kathmandu.

Beijing has been pushing for an upgradation of its observer status at the Saarc with the state-run Xinhua news agency on Sunday quoting Nepali experts and politicians saying it was an insult to keep restricting China to its observer status.

Akbaruddin, however, dismissed the speculation, saying the draft declaration of the summit had nothing on a stronger role for observers since there was no great support for the move.

“Observers are always peripheral to members. We will come to the rest at a later stage when we (members) are in a position as Saarc to deepen our cooperation and have the capacity to engage with others in a more productive manner,” he said.

Since the 2007 New Delhi summit, Saarc observers have been invited to inaugural and closing sessions. At the next summit in Colombo in 2008, a moratorium was imposed on the inclusion of new observers.

Modi is scheduled to meet the heads of state and government of Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan on Wednesday.

“These were all the meetings that were asked for and we have acceded to all requests that came. We are for a meaningful dialogue and that bilaterally would mean something very specific,” said Akbaruddin.

The spokesperson also rejected reports about a meeting between external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs and internal security Sartaj Aziz on Tuesday, calling it a mere exchange of pleasantries.

Both Sharif and Aziz had indicated that Pakistan is willing to have a meeting with Modi on the sidelines of Saarc if the Indian side takes the initiative.

Upon his arrival in Kathmandu on Tuesday, the Pakistan PM put the onus on New Delhi, saying the “cancellation of talks was New Delhi’s unilateral decision,” and the “ball is now in India’s court for talks”.

With negotiations on the draft Kathmandu declaration on, India expressed disappointment after proposed agreements on road and rail connectivity and energy cooperation among Saarc members could not be finalized.

Sources said Pakistan had expressed reservations about the proposals, leading to the deadlock.

“As far as India is concerned, we are ready for it and extremely keen to do it. There was a state which requested that they require approval through their internal processes,” Akbaruddin said. – From The Hindusstan Times

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