Leaders to Take Bold Steps for Economic Integration

Sagar Lohani

The 13th South Asian summit held at Bangladesh-China Friendship Conference Centre in the capital city of Bangladesh from November 12 to 13, 2005 with the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), countries agreeing to take bold steps to promote regional economic cooperation.

They promised to build a South Asia where political harmony and economic integration would be the cornerstones of development, prosperity and peace. The leaders also vowed to face the common challenges in order to realize the aspirations of the 1.5 billion people of the region.

At the opening of the two-day summit, the assembled heads of state and government pledged to slash trade barriers with putting SAFTA into operation from January next to boost the economic growth of a this region.

The leaders said the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has started to exude a new confidence thanks to a positive political atmosphere prevailing in the region. The momentum thus gained should be sustained.

They emphasized joining in the Asian mainstream of economic growth and prosperity. The free-trade agreement is a shining milestone in the history of SAARC and, if pursued in earnest, it will inject new energies into our economies, the leaders observed.

Once the restrictions are removed, the volume of trade among the seven countries can rise to $14 billion from the present $5 billion a year, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimates.

The South Asian leaders named pulling millions out of abject poverty, combating terrorism and dealing with natural disasters more effectively as the issues of highest priority. They also stressed on a new vision for SAARC in its third decade.

The summit began amidst the tightest-ever security with observing one-minute silence in memory of the victims of the October 8 earthquake in Kashmir and last December's tsunami of three SAARC nations.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz handed over the SAARC baton to the summit hostess, Khaleda Zia, to steer the seven-nation forum for the next one year. Khaleda was elected SAARC chairperson first in 1993 at the 7th SAARC summit in Dhaka.

Terming accelerating the economic growth as a major objective of SAARC, the premiers of Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz expressed their firm determination to implement the South Asia Free Trade Area as per its schedule in January. The other leaders taking part in the summit -- Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Nepalese King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev and Bhutanese Prime Minister Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup -- echoed them on timely implementation of Safta.

Dr Singh said, "The honest answer is that regional economic cooperation in South Asia has fallen far short of our expectations." While Khaleda Zia observed, "Mindsets and perceptions emanating from the past" were affecting regional cooperation.

As natural disasters presented a new challenge to the region, the SAARC leaders emphasized building a regional early-warning centre and cooperation in disaster preparedness and management. Leaders also underscored the threat to the region's ecological balance arising out of years of neglect and pressure on its natural resources.

The SAARC leaders also spoke about setting up new markers for regional cooperation, implementation of the SAARC social charter and energy cooperation. They stressed the need for speedy implementation of decisions and translating them into tangible terms through prioritizing, quantifying and evaluating constantly the forum activities.

The summit was ended on November 13 adopting a 53-point Dhaka Declaration, pledging to draw a roadmap for the next decade, slash trade barriers from next year to boost economic growth and combat poverty and terrorism to reach the common regional goals.

Three major agreements signed

SAARC members yesterday signed three major agreements, all for facilitating intra-regional trade as the seven South Asian countries are going to launch a free trade area next year.
The accords are Agreement on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Customs Matters, Agreement on Establishment of SAARC Arbitration Council, and Limited Multilateral Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation and Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters.

The foreign ministers of the member countries inked the agreements in presence of their heads of state or government.

Afghanistan to be new member China, Japan observers

The leaders of SAARC have decided to welcome Afghanistan as the South Asian forum's new member and accord observer status to China and Japan. Afghanistan will be the eighth member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), launched in Dhaka in 1985 with founding members Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Bangladesh Prime Minister and new SAARC Chairperson Khaleda Zia formally announced the decisions at a crowded press conference at International Conference Centre soon after the concluding session of the 13th SAARC Summit in Dhaka on November 13, 2005.

"I am happy to announce that the SAARC leaders have admitted Afghanistan as a full member of SAARC, subject to completion of formalities," she said. "We have also decided to accord observer status to the People's Republic of China and Japan," she added.

"We are delighted to welcome Afghanistan to our group," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at the concluding session. "This is an appropriate recognition of the long-standing ties of culture and history that Afghanistan shares with us."

The SAARC Standing Committee will prepare the modalities regarding membership of Afghanistan and observer status of China and Japan in April next year. The Bangladesh premier said the modalities will be finalized by the SAARC Council of Ministers at its 27th meeting in July 2006.

India will Host Next Summit in 2007

The 14th Summit of the seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation will be held in India in 2007.

The SAARC leaders at the concluding day of the 13th summit accepted the Indian proposal for hosting the next summit, which was supposed to host by Bhutan. Bhutan regretted its inability to host the next summit due to unavoidable circumstances.

The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, in his speech in the concluding session invited all concerned to the 14th summit. 'We look forward to welcome you all to India', Singh told the conference and thanked the SAARC leaders for welcoming the Indian offer.

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