Highlights from the 18th SAARC Summit

Last week, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), an organization established nearly thirty years ago to achieve closer regional ties, hosted its 18th summit in Kathmandu, Nepal. Similar to previous SAARC summits, several South Asian heads of state alluded to the region’s lack of cohesion in their public statements. Many of the leaders cited the oft-repeated statistic of intra-regional trade totaling a meagre five percent. 

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi described how “today, goods travel from one Punjab to the other Punjab through Delhi, Mumbai, Dubai and Karachi - making the journey 11 times longer and the cost four times more.” Similarly, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina exhorted leaders to “set aside their differences” and work towards the effective implementation of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), which promises a zero duty trade regime by 2016. US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal, who attended as an observer, suggested that power trading and water sharing could drive regional connectivity.

However, a standoff between India and Pakistan prevailed over the summit, which undermined progress. While it was widely hoped that Modi and his Pakistani counterpart would hold bilateral discussions, the Indian leader instead scheduled one-on-one meetings with all the SAARC heads of state except Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Tensions were further raised when Modi also reminded leaders of the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai during his address.

It was widely hoped that the South Asian leaders would finalize agreements on energy and surface connectivity, namely the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation, the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement and the SAARC Regional Railways Agreement. While the energy agreement was successfully signed, the others were stalled by Pakistan which claimed that they had been introduced ahead of being vetted by SAARC’s Transport Ministers, as is required by procedure. Pakistani officials added that the agreements faced opposition from domestic truck and transport associations. It was eventually agreed that the Transport Ministers would meet in three months to finalize the remaining accords, however, they can only be enforced in six months’ time when SAARC’s foreign ministers next meet.

The summit ended with the adoption of the 36-point Kathmandu Declaration, which set forth a framework for regional cooperation until the next summit in 2016. Highlights of this agreement include:

Intra-regional Trade
•    A commitment to achieving a South Asian Economic Union (SAEU) by 2030, which would include a free trade area, customs union, common market and a common economic and monetary union.
•    Better trade facilitation by the elimination of non-tariff and para-tariff barriers, efficient transit facilities and harmonization of technical barriers to trade and sanitary and phytosanitary measures.

Energy Cooperation
•    Identify regional and sub-regional projects in hydropower, natural gas, solar, wind and bio-fuel and implement them to meet the region’s increasing power needs.

Agriculture and Food Security
•    The early ratification of a SAARC Seed Bank to ensure regional food security as well as finalization of a Regional Vaccine Bank and Regional Livestock Gene Bank.

•    Effective implementation of the SAARC Agreement on Rapid Response to Natural Disasters, SAARC Convention on Cooperation on the Environment and the Thimphu Statement on Climate Change.
•    The states agreed to establish a SAARC Environment and Disaster Management Centre and pressed for a legally binding agreement at the UNFCCC based on common but differentiated responsibility.

•    The summit called for lower intra-regional telephone tariffs.

Combating terrorism
•    Implementing the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism.
•    Besides reiterating commitments to combat illicit trafficking and the smuggling of arms and counterfeit currency, the heads of states agreed to establish a cybercrime monitoring desk.

Strengthening the SAARC process
•    Enhancing SAARC’s visibility by adopting common positions at international fora. 
•    States agreed to hold meetings of the SAARC summit every two years, meetings of the Council of Ministers as well as the Standing Committee at least once a year, and meetings of the Programming Committee at least twice a year.

The summit included observers from China, the United States, Australia, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Myanmar and the EU. Ahead of the summit, it was rumored that China was seeking full member status with voting rights, an idea soon publically rejected by India’s Ministry of External Affairs.  However, China's Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin reaffirmed the country’s economic commitment to SAARC and announced plans to spend USD 30 billion for the construction of roads, the creation of 10,000 scholarships and 5,000 training opportunities in China. 
Many observers have dismissed the SAARC summit for failing to achieve its full potential, and this overall sentiment was perhaps best summed up by Modi who said: “nowhere in the world are collective efforts more urgent than in South Asia; and, nowhere else is it so modest.”