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South Asian nations seek closer links

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani shakes hands with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh before the 17th South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit at the Shangri-Las in Addu
Image caption The historically tense relationship between India and Pakistan has been the focus of strong interest during the summit

The Maldives have, perhaps, seen nothing like it.

Every so often ordinary vehicles, including the buses that ferry the journalists around, have to pull into the tiny country lanes and wait while fleets of black Maldivian limousines carrying VVIPs pass by.

They move back and forth along the road which, at 14 km, is the longest in the entire Maldives archipelago, spanning four southerly islands via causeways.

A stringent security regime has been set up to protect the top officials.

Appropriately, the tiny host nation has chosen "Building Bridges" as the theme for this 17th conference of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which was founded in 1985 grouping Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and admitted Afghanistan in 2005.

The chosen theme reflects a desire that the boundaries so evident in the region should start to dissolve and that transport, communication and trade linkages should thrive.

The summit setting is a sparkling new conference centre in the Maldives' second city, Addu.

At the grand opening ceremony, traditional Maldivian drummers and horn players followed by a pop singer regaled the top diplomats before President Mohamed Nasheed set out his vision for bridge-building.

Areas of cooperation

Image caption Afghan President Hamid Karzai says pledges must lead to action

By world standards, the SAARC region is very poorly integrated economically.

Only some 5% of the total trade emanating from SAARC area takes place within the region - far less than in East Asia.

The tense political relations between some South Asian countries have made the issue worse.

Mr Nasheed called on his fellow national leaders to make progress on three areas of cooperation:

  • trade, transport and economic integration
  • security issues such as the growing threats of Indian Ocean piracy and climate change
  • good governance.

He hoped the countries would agree to implement the South Asian Free Trade Agreement - which was originally supposed to have been implemented in the mid-1990s - and would reduce the so-called "sensitive list" of goods and services that countries are currently prevented from trading with one another.

The Maldives is also pushing for better regional transport links by sea, road and rail, and Mr Nasheed looked to the current summit to work towards these.

And - as leader of a country severely threatened by sea levels - he suggested each of his neighbours should invest a proportion of its income in clean energy technologies.

Concrete action?

Image caption The Maldives and other SAARC members want fewer boundaries in the region

The historically tense relationship between India and Pakistan has been the focus of strong interest here.

Their two prime ministers, Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani, had warm words for each other after their bilateral talks on the summit's sidelines at a luxury island resort, which took place in a luxury thatched hut above a white sandy shore.

The building of confidence is the theme of the moment, three years after the relationship plunged to rock-bottom after the Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed.

The Indian foreign secretary said the two neighbouring, nuclear-armed rivals would be moving to implement easier trade and travel measures, agreed in July.

Currently travel between the two neighbours is tortuous and restrictive.

He said a recent agreement to liberalise the visa regime would take effect "at the earliest", and - like others - praised Pakistan for last week granting India most-favoured-nation trading status, a move which promises to step up neighbourly commerce.

All in all, lots of promises are being made and wishes expressed.

But, as President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan told the summit, "our inability to translate pledges into concrete actions holds us back".

Now the people of the eight SAARC countries will be waiting for the concrete actions.

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