Assistant Secretary Robert O. Blake, Jr. for Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs represented the United States at the 17th summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation that was held last week in the southern atoll of Addu in Maldives.
“As many of you know, SAARC has eight member nations and nine observers. The United States has been an observer at SAARC since 2007 because of the importance that we attach to our relations with each of the SAARC countries, but also because of the importance that we attach to greater regional integration.” -Mr. Blake
He said this year’s SAARC summit, several of the SAARC heads of state lamented that SAARC has made only incremental progress towards regional integration. They said that intraregional trade represents only 5 percent of total trade.
“The SAARC states hope to implement a South Asia free trade agreement by 2016, and there was some progress that was announced during the recent summit.” -Mr. Blake
He stated that the leaders agreed to finalize a regional railways agreement in the next year and to create an Indian Ocean cargo and ferry service by 2012. However, he highligted that SAARC members were not ready to endorse proposals to move up the date for SAFTA implementation.
He noted that SAARC operates by consensus, and tensions for many years between India and Pakistan have inhibited regional integration efforts.
“That’s why the recent progress between India and Pakistan has been so important, not only to reduce tensions between those two important countries, but also to enhance prospects for regional integration.” -Mr. Blake
He noted that the warming between India and Pakistan began at last year’s SAARC summit that was held in Bhutan. He added that this year, Prime Ministers Singh and Gillani met again and reaffirmed that there’s now a new chapter in their relations as a result of Pakistan’s decision to grant most favored nation status to India.