The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is holding a summit meeting this week in Kathmandu. The gathering won’t draw the international attention that a G20 meet, like the one recently concluded in Brisbane, Australia does, but it is important nonetheless.
The eight SAARC member nations – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – are home to many of the world’s poorest people, but their combined economies are larger than any country except China and the US, and about half that of the EEC. With almost a quarter of the world’s population, economic development in this part of the world affects all of us.
The first SAARC summit was held in 1985. The group planned for annual meetings, but tensions between the two largest (and nuclear-armed) members, India and Pakistan, have prevented that: This is the 18th summit. Peace and cooperation for development remain SAARC’s main goals, and political talks dominate the sideline meetings during conferences. Observers expect new Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif to meet in Kathmandu, but privately at the hotel where all eight heads of state will stay.
Nine countries including the US have observer status and will attend this week’s summit. Several others including Russia have applied for observer status, and those requests will likely be acted on during this meeting.
Expectations for the summit are modest. Visa-free travel for citizens of member states has been mooted previously and might see action this time, but India and Pakistan are unlikely to implement that across their border, which remains tightly controlled and tense, especially in the Kashmir region. There are hopes for better sharing of electricity though a regional power grid, new agreements for managing common water resources, and perhaps greater cooperation between the counties’ meteorological offices to prevent tragedies caused by floods and storms.
Indian PM Modi has made the strengthening of relations with neighboring countries a focus of his administration, and he is expected to raise issues of transportation and joint security against terrorism this week. But the mutual mistrust between India and Pakistan and pervasive atmosphere of corruption and inefficiency common to all the SAARC states will limit what can be accomplished in Kathmandu.