SAFTA takes centre stage at SAARC - Promoting trade and investment top of agenda, leaders arrive...

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Promoting trade and investment top of agenda, leaders arrive while foreign minister’s meeting defines key issues

Uditha Jayasinghe reporting
from the Maldives  
Renewable energy and the implementation of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) took centre stage during the 34th SAARC Foreign Ministers Council yesterday.  

Maldivian Foreign Minister Ahmad Naseem told media at the end of the 34th SAARC Summit Foreign Minister’s Meeting that the implementation of SAFTA was delayed due to the national problems faced by countries. He acknowledged that they were serious contentions but pledged to continue aggressive talks during the next six months to iron out the issues.
Naseem insisted that Maldives will push for greater trade and investment as well as economic integration in the region during the 17th SAARC Summit and in subsequent meetings.
The report on the deliberations carried out in closed sessions will be passed onto the heads of state that will participate in the summit.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa reached Addu City in the early hours of the morning and was followed by a slew of leaders including Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai arrived in the Maldives as well, this is the first time that a Afghanistan head of State has visited the country.    

“There will always be contentious issues within countries,” he said responding to a question on what issues still exist between the members, “but there is always opportunity and Maldives as the head of the foreign ministers council will do as much as we can to seek out and use these opportunities for the benefit of all South Asian nations.”       
One step will be to upgrade and empower the administration system of SAARC and the foreign ministers agreed to commence a study to define what changes need to be made to the SAARC Secretariat to achieve this goal.  
China’s request to be observers of the South Asia Association for Regional Corporation (SAARC) will be deliberated during the next six months. Naseem stated that the next six months would be spent in defining the role of observers in the regional organisation.
“We need to first find out what role China wants to play by being an observer of SAARC. As far as I know they have not applied for membership but their request for observer status needs to be looked at more closely. How observers can function within SAARC needs to be discussed,” he said.
Once deliberations are complete request will be taken up at the next foreign minister’s council meeting scheduled in six months.
The U.S. has had SAARC observer status since 2007 and a delegation will attend sessions that begin on Thursday.
Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O. Blake, Jr. is expected to land in Gan Island, Maldives later today.
“The theme of the 2011 SAARC Summit, “Building Bridges,” reflects the opportunity for the United States to reaffirm its commitment to engaging with South Asia on our shared interests and challenges, including regional economic cooperation and integration along the New Silk Road, breaking down barriers to trade and travel, and improving people-to-people linkages,” the statement released by the US delegation office said.
Assistant Secretary Blake, US Ambassador to Nepal and lead US official accredited to SAARC Scott H. DeLisi, and US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Patricia Butenis will represent the United States at the SAARC Summit.
 While in the Maldives, Assistant Secretary Blake will also hold bilateral meetings with a broad cross-section of government officials from South Asia and fellow observer nations, the statement added.
Meanwhile the possibility of warmer India and Pakistan relations are set to become the focus of the summit.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told media on the sidelines of the summit that she hopes renewed interest in reconciliation between the two leaders of the country will translate to tangible results in the two days ahead.
Echoing these sentiments Khar insisted that the vision of Pakistan is clear and that the, “Addu spirit” will hopefully bring greater closeness between the two parties at the upcoming talks between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his counterpart.
“Our common ground is our common problem. We must take steps to putting the issues in perspective rather than bringing past contentions into make the problems more complicated. Of course with over five decades of issues it is not possible to depart from them overnight but we are keen to build a better relationship so that at some point in the future we can put our contentious past behind us. We have seen that it is possible in other parts of the world,” she remarked.

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