PM says SAARC will move forward on liberalization of trade at Maldives Summit
File photo of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

PM says SAARC will move forward on liberalization of trade at Maldives Summit

New Delhi, November 9, 2011

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today headed for the Maldives to attend the 17th SAARC Summit at which the eight member-countries are expected to, among other things, move forward on the process of liberalization of trade under the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) Agreement.

They are also expected to sign agreements on Implementation of Regional Standards, Multilateral Arrangement on Recognition of Conformity Assessment, Rapid Response to Natural Disasters and establishment of a SAARC Seed Bank.

"India will work to promote greater integration as well as the development of a South Asian identity at the forthcoming Summit," Dr Singh said in a pre-departure statement

On the margins of the Summit, Dr Singh is also expected to hold bilateral meetings with other South Asian heads of state and government attending the meeting, including Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.

After the Summit, Dr Singh will also pay a bilateral visit to the Maldives on November 11-12 that is expected to inject new momentum and content to India's relations with this close and strategic neighbour.

"My bilateral visit to Male after the SAARC Summit will be the first Prime Ministerial visit to the Maldives from India in nine years. During this period, our relations have been significantly transformed," he said.

Dr Singh said he looked forward to holding in-depth discussions with Maldives President Mohammed Nasheed on all aspects of the bilaeral relationship. He is also slated to address the People's Majlis (Parliament) in Male.

"We also expect to conclude concrete agreements to enhance our cooperation in both traditional as well as new areas," he said.

The SAARC Summit will take place on Addu, the southernmost island of the Maldives, making it the first time that the eight-nation grouping will be meeting south of the equator.

The Summit was preceded by the Standing Committee meeting on November 7-8 and a meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers at the level of Foreign Ministers today.

Dr Singh will be assisted at the Summit by External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai and other senior officials.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) brings together India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives and Afghanistan.

Dr Singh said that, over the last 26 years of its existence, SAARC had established itself as the leading mechanism for regional cooperation in South Asia.

"It has enabled enhanced cooperation within the region in a wide range of areas such as trade, connectivity, poverty alleviation, food security, women and child development, combating organized crime and terrorism, among others. It has also created new institutions to promote regional integration such as the South Asian Regional Standards Organization, the South Asian Development Fund and the South Asian University which is based in New Delhi," he said.

"The theme of the XVIIth SAARC Summit is "Building Bridges". We welcome this focus because India has always emphasized the importance of enhanced connectivity for the socio-economic development of the South Asian region. We have undertaken several initiatives to improve connectivity on a bilateral, sub-regional and regional basis, and are willing to do much more. The theme is also in consonance with the observance of the current decade as the 'SAARC Decade of Intra-Regional Connectivity'," he added.

After the Summit, Dr Singh will travel to Male, the capital of the Maldives for the bilateral visit - the first by an Indian Prime Minister since September 2002.

Briefing journalists here last week about the visit, Mr Mathai said it was aimed at reinforcing India's close bonds of friendship and solidarity with the Maldives and to review the current status of the bilateral relationship. He said a number of agreements were likely to be signed during the bilateral visit.

This is the third time that Maldives will host the SAARC Summit after 1990 and 1997.

Mr Mathai said SAARC was working to intensify regional integration and develop a South Asian identity.

"More wide-ranging cooperative projects that create momentum for integrating our region will also benefit from a greater sense of a shared destiny. It is on this broad canvas that SAARC has exercised a positive impact on the lives of South Asia’s people," he said.

He said implementing the provisions of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) remained central to creating a more prosperous region.

"Since its entry into force in 2006, SAFTA has been showing significant results. Trade under SAFTA is now at the mark of $ 1.3 billion. And this is more than double of what it was two years ago. Further forward movement can be expected both in terms of reducing the size of our Sensitive Lists, especially for LDC members of SAARC, but also for reducing peak tariff rates for products that remain covered by the Sensitive Lists," he said.

Referring to the theme of this year's Summit, Mr Mathai said, "Literally and metaphorically, our region needs to improve the infrastructure of connectivity and trade. It also needs better people-to-people contact to entrench the habit of regional cooperation."

India had recently hosted the first meeting of the South Asia Forum. This is a platform mandated by the SAARC Leaders at the XVI Summit, to bring together Governments and civil society actors. The Forum will provide inputs to develop a new vision for the region in its next 25years.

The Maldives Summit will have a report from the Forum, which is seen as part of a process to widen the range of stakeholders in all the eight SAARC nations.

"For India, SAARC is a key element in our approach to the region. It is a vital platform for our agenda of mutually-beneficial regional cooperation, leading to economic integration of our wider region. It is also a mechanism through which we can supplement bilateral ties with each of the other seven SAARC states," he said.

"Since a proactive, positive and engaged India is central to regional cooperation in South Asia, we remain committed to supporting SAARC projects even in an asymmetrical and non-reciprocal manner. I am confident that the forthcoming Summit will enable us to intensify regional cooperation, while expanding the canvas for such activities. It may be mentioned that since the New Delhi Summit in 2007 India has in fact contributed a substantial sum for various SAARC initiatives," he added.

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