November 9, 2005

South Asia summit again seems mired in politics

By Y.P. Rajesh

DHAKA (Reuters) - Leaders of South Asia, home to nearly
one-fifth of humanity, gather in Bangladesh this weekend for a
twice-postponed summit to push long-standing goals to reduce
poverty, boost trade and fight terrorism.

But 20 years after the grouping was born, old rivalries and
internal conflicts are still blocking any meaningful progress.

India, which has about 70 percent of the region's people,
wealth and land, has had differences at one time or another
with almost all other members. It has gone to war with Pakistan
three times, and came close to a fourth in 2002, and has had
significant differences with Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Bhutan and the Maldives make up the rest of SAARC.

Analysts say creating wealth in one of the poorest regions
of the world is impossible without some progress on diplomacy.

"Diplomatic tensions won't be resolved either at this SAARC
or later on," said Sukh Deo Muni, a South Asia expert at New
Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "They can try and
camouflage their political and diplomatic problems by agreeing
on economics."

The November 12-13 summit of the South Asian Association
for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Dhaka is also meeting under
the shadow of the two biggest natural disasters in the world
over the past year -- the Asian tsunami and the Kashmir

The two calamities killed over 100,000 people in south Asia
and setting up a system for the seven member states to help
deal better with natural disasters is on top of SAARC's agenda.

SAARC was formed in 1985 to integrate a region which
largely encompasses all of British colonial India through
business links.


The previous SAARC summit in Islamabad in 2004 agreed to
launch a South Asian free trade area from 2006.

But less than two months before the agreement comes into
force, members continue to quibble over tariff cuts, a list of
sensitive trading items and a system to compensate poorer
members for loss of revenue.

Free trade is expected to boost economic activity and
growth in the region, home to about 1.5 billion people, more
than 400 million of whom live on less than a dollar a day.

Although a preferential trade treaty has been in place for
a decade, trading within SAARC accounts for less than 5 percent
of the members' total global trade.

Economic experts like D.H. Pai Panandikar of New Delhi's
RPG Foundation, a private think-tank, say politics precedes
trade in South Asia and progress is possible only if political
tensions are resolved first.

"Any free trade between India and Pakistan is not likely
because settlement of political issues, particularly Kashmir,
is a precondition for harmonizing trade relations," Panandikar

Most SAARC summits in recent years have become a sideshow
and bilateral talks between leaders of India and Pakistan have
grabbed more attention, particularly after the nuclear powers
came close to war over Kashmir in 2002.

Although their ties have improved significantly since, new
tensions between the old rivals are expected to cast a shadow
over the Dhaka summit as well.

Indian officials said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would
send a tough message to Islamabad after a series of bombs which
killed 66 people in the Indian capital last month were
suspected to be the handiwork of Pakistan-based militants.

India is also upset with Nepal's King Gyanendra for moving
slowly on his promise to restore democracy in the Himalayan
country after the monarch sacked the government and took power
this year in a bid to curb a violent Maoist revolt.

Dhaka's ties with New Delhi have been strained over
frequent skirmishes between their border guards and allegations
by the two countries that the other shelters insurgents.

The summit itself is being held under a security blanket
after Bangladesh was hit by a wave of bombings by Islamist
militants in recent months.

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga is expected to
keep a low profile at the summit as her term is set to end
after the November 17 presidential election, seen as crucial to
end the logjam in the peace process with Tamil Tiger rebels.

With such odds against it, prospects for any major
breakthrough are bleak, analysts said.

"All the platitudes at its 13th summit cannot gloss over
the reality that since its founding two decades ago, SAARC has
been a slowboat to nowhere," strategic affairs analyst C. Raja
Mohan wrote in the Indian Express on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Surojit Gupta in NEW DELHI)