SAARC summits and the high level meetings leading up to them are long-drawn out affairs. Three consecutive two-day meetings of the heads of SAARC divisions in the foreign ministries, of the foreign secretaries, and of the foreign ministers of the seven countries, precede the three-day summit itself, during which the leaders take the middle day off for a "retreat". However, no one was complaining at the ninth summit held in the Maldives 6-14 May. All the delegates were put up on one of the coral island resorts near the capital island of Male, in villas fronting white sand beaches and turquoise lagoons.

Transportation was by speed-boat, between Hulele´s atoll runway, Kurumba island resort, where the leaders stayed, Bandos where the officials were put up and where the pre-summit conferences were held, and Male, for the inaugural and closing sessions of the summit. The retreat was to be held on a fifth island, at Full Moon Beach Resort, but rain and choppy seas kept the leaders confined to Kurumba.

Not such a bad place to be confined in. In a dramatic demonstration of the importance attached to tourism in the Maldives, the king, presidents and prime ministers attending the summit had to share the facilities at Kurumba with sunbathing tourists and scuba-divers. There was something surreal about the phalanxes of leaders and their entourages charging around the coral walkways for their one-on-one bilateral (seven times six are a lot) meetings. "You have to be careful not to get run over by a head of state here," said a snorkeller with fins and mask stepping niftily aside on his way back to his cabana.

It was about as far away as one could get from South Asia without actually leaving it, and a useful reminder of the advantages of globalisation beckoning the region. One wondered, though, whether the more usual South Asian mix of status consciousness and protocol would have made this possible anywhere else. Not that security was neglected. But it was unobtrusive, and made easier by the archipelagic nature of the country.

The Male summit started out on a much more hopeful note perhaps than any previous summit. "In the two years since the last summit the mood has changed from one of cynicism to cautious optimism," said one delegate before the inauguration ceremony. "Both the politics and the economics of the region have improved dramatically." On the former front the big change has been improvements in India´s relations with Bangladesh and Nepal as a result of the "Gujral Doctrine", which abandons India´s traditional insistence on reciprocity in its dealings with neighbours. The big question on everyone´s minds was whether the summit would witness a similar breakthrough in the Indo-Pakistan ties.

The first indication that it would, came in a statesmanlike speech by Nawaz Sharif, who said, "We cannot afford the continuation of tensions, military confrontation and escalating defence budgets." Without referring to Kashmir but only to the stalled dialogue with India, he held out his hand to say "We are determined to continue with this process so that all outstanding issues can be comprehensively addressed. The dividends for success will be enormous not only for Pakistan but for the entire SAARC region."

I.K. Gujral seemed to have been taken by surprise, as the prepared text of his speech contained no reference to political issues. In an extempore add-on, however, he referred to Mr Sharif and his overture with great warmth, and said he looked forward to their meeting that afternoon. Perhaps anticipating the agreement to resume talks, establish a hotline, and release all civilian prisoners, he became the first of several leaders to refer to the summit as "historic".

In their declaration, the leaders "agreed that a process of informal political consultations would prove useful", a cautiously worded statement that could over time lead to SAARC evolving into an explicitly political organisation like ASEAN. Observers see India´s willingness to go along with the rest on the issue as yet another expression of its new-found confidence in dealing with its neighbours.

The other important decision was to fix a firm date for the commencement of SAFTA, or the South Asian Free Trade Area, by 2001. The formulation until now had been "preferably by 2000, or by 2005 at the latest". Fixing a firm deadline helped focus the attention of the trade negotiators of the seven countries, who met in Thimphu in mid-June, on accelerating tariff cuts to reach zero level, and eliminating non-tariff barriers within the next four years.

Interestingly, the impetus for free trade came as much from the smaller members as from India, which formally proposed a South Asian Economic Community. Indeed, looking beyond free trade, the declaration adopted by the summit called for "specific steps to promote and protect investments" in joint ventures, avoidance of double taxation, customs standardisation, mechanisms for arbitration and most importantly, improvements in trade-related infrastructure such as communications networks.

The summit laid to rest the controversy that had developed over the initiative taken by Nepal to undertake sub-regional development jointly with India, Bangladesh and Bhutan in the north-eastern corner of the SAARC region. The remaining members had expressed fears that smaller groupings within SAARC might weaken the body as a whole. However, it has now been agreed by all members that sub-regional cooperation in growth "triangles" or "quadrangles" will be taken under the umbrella of SAARC whose charter provides for cooperation on specific projects between three or more members.

An important decision was to extend the term of the secretary-general from the present two to three years. While the proposal has been discussed before, the obstacle was the question late President J.R. Jayawardene of Sri Lanka is reported to have asked: "Does that mean we will have to wait for 21 years for our turn?".

While the decision represents the kind of incremental progress that has characterised SAARC so far, it is the very concept of "taking turns" that the organisation will have to grow out of, as ASEAN has. "If the organisation has to grow, the psychology of sharing a post will have to go," as one diplomat noted. Others pointed out that Sridath Ramphal headed the Commonwealth Secretariat for 12 years.

The organisation will be particularly fortunate to retain the services of the present Secretary-General, Naeem U Hasan, for another year. He is regarded as having been particularly effective.

Now that SAARC seems to be headed in directions more central to regional cooperation, some of the relatively peripheral activities it has busied itself in the past may be in for pruning. The metaphor was used by Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga when she asked: "Does the proliferation of activities over the last decade signify anything more than the growth of barren foliage on a vast tree?" Responding to Mr Sharif´s suggestion, the summit set up a Group of Eminent Persons (GEP) to review activities so far and chart directions for the future. It will report to the next summit.

Maldives has taken over the chair from India. Next summit: Sri Lanka 1998.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian