South Asia to accelerate trade, combat terror (Roundup)

November 12th, 2011 - 12:10 am ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh Addu (Maldives), Nov 11 (IANS) In this idyllic Indian Ocean atoll, leaders of eight South Asian nations Friday decided to accelerate trade liberalisation, intensify anti-terror cooperation and unveiled key initiatives, including setting up a Rapid Action Force to combat natural disasters.

Pushing their dream of regional integration closer to reality, the South Asian leaders signed four pacts that, among other things, included setting up a SAARC seed bank and two trade-related pacts.

The curtain came down on the two-day SAARC summit with leaders vowing to live up to the mastertheme of “Building Bridges,” as they vowed to fast-track the Indian Ocean cargo and passenger ferry service and other key connectivity projects like concluding regional rail and motor vehicles pacts by next year.

In an indication of things to come, they pushed for a demonstration run of a container train between Bangladesh, India and Nepal at the earliest.

As the summit ended in the spanking new Equatorial Convention Centre in Addu City, the youthful Maldives President Mohammad Nasheed, the host and chair, looked radiant at a job well done and announced a set of decisions by SAARC leaders that included commitments to reducing trade barriers, strengthening investment and enhancing connectivity. They also decided to expand cooperation in critical areas like climate change and renewable energy that have a bearing on the future of the region.

Nasheed also announced that Kathmandu will host the 18th SAARC summit in 2012.

The leaders of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan participated in the summit. With the region prone to frequent terror attacks, the leaders renewed their resolve to combat terrorism, transnational organized crimes, especially illegal drug trafficking, trafficking in humans and small arms and increased incidents of maritime piracy in the region.

The leaders decided to make “coordinated and concerted efforts to combat terrorism” and called for “an early conclusion of the proposed UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism and completion of the ratification of the SAARC Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters”, said the Addu Declaration that was issued at the end of the summit.

But trade liberalisation emerged as the centrepiece of the 17th summit, underlining the quiet and incremental triumph of economics over politics.

By unilaterally announcing India’s decision to reduce the sensitive lists for the least developed countries under SAFTA from 480 tariff lines to 25 in his speech at the inaugural session of the summit Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had set the key theme of the summit, which was reflected in the declaration.

The declaration recognised “the importance of the full implementation of South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) as a measure towards the creation of an enabling economic environment in the region.” The leaders directed the “the SAFTA Ministerial Council to intensify efforts to fully and effectively implement SAFTA and the work on reduction in Sensitive Lists as well as early resolution of non-tariff barriers and expediting the process of harmonizing standards and customs procedures”.

They asked their finance ministers to “chart a proposal that would allow for greater flow of financial capital and intra-regional long-term investment.”

In other important decisions, the leaders decided to bolster mechanisms and institutions like the SAARC Secretariat and Regional Centres to implement regional and sub-regional projects.

The SAARC leaders also decided to review all matters relating to its engagement with observers, including the question of dialogue partnership before the next session of the council of ministers in 2012.

The summit was held in an atmosphere of improving bilateral relations between countries of the region. The bilateral meeting between Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani Thursday morning, at the end of which they announced their resolve to write a new chapter in their relations, had set the tone for the summit that began in the afternoon.

(Manish Chand can be contacted at manish.c@ians.in)

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