Cross-border terror, blocking connectivity and obstructing trade are the key challenges that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) must overcome to ensure lasting peace and security in the region, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said on Thursday.
Jaishankar made the remarks while addressing an informal virtual meeting of foreign ministers of the eight-member grouping, whose functioning has stalled because of differences between India and Pakistan.
The meeting of the foreign ministers is an annual event held on the margins of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York that has been marked by testy exchanges between India and Pakistan in recent years.
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“Cross-border terrorism, blocking connectivity and obstructing trade are three key challenges that SAARC must overcome,” Jaishankar said in a string of tweets highlighting the contents of his speech.
“Only then will we see enduring peace, prosperity and security in our South Asia region,” he added.
In his speech, he said: “Over the last 35 years, Saarc has made significant progress. But our efforts towards collective collaboration and prosperity have been hampered by acts of terrorism and threats to national security.
“Such an environment impedes our shared objective of realising the full potential of our collective endeavour. It is, therefore, crucial that we collectively resolve to defeat the scourge of terrorism, including the forces that nurture, support and encourage it.
“This will generate the much needed trust and confidence to collectively build a stronger and prosperous Saarc.”
Though he didn’t name any country, it was obvious he was referring to Pakistan.
India has accused Pakistan of backing cross-border terror, especially in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).
After India created an emergency coronavirus disease (Covid-19) fund for Saarc states earlier this year, Pakistan asked for it to be placed under the grouping’s secretariat.
Jaishankar said he had also reaffirmed India’s commitment to its “neighbourhood first” policy and towards building a connected, integrated, secure and prosperous South Asia.
He also highlighted India’s Covid-19-related cooperation efforts, including a commitment of $10 million to the emergency fund for the region, the supply of essential drugs, medical consumables, and protection and test kits to the region, and a video conference of health professionals from the region to share information and best practices on the pandemic.
India had also launched a Covid-19 Information Exchange Platform (COINEX) to facilitate exchange of specialised information, helped the development of an innovative website by the Saarc Disaster Management Centre to provide reliable information and updates on the evolving situation, and activated the Saarc Food Bank mechanism to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, he said.
“And where we brought back our own people from afar, we had space both on the plane and in our hearts for our neighbours,” Jaishankar said.
He also pointed to India’s support for neighbours, such as the extension of $150 million (m), $200 m and $400 m foreign currency swap support for the Maldives, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, respectively.
In his address, Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi spoke of his country’s “willingness to host the 19th SAARC Summit and for obstacles created in its way to be removed for SAARC to function as an effective instrument of regional cooperation”.
The summit was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016 but was called off after an attack on an Indian Army camp at Uri in Kashmir that was blamed on Pakistan-based terrorists.
Since then, Saarc has largely been dormant.
Qureshi said Pakistan attaches great importance to Saarc and its charter, which upholds the principle of sovereign equality as the basis for meaningful regional cooperation.
He also reiterated the need for a regional approach to stop the spread of Covid-19.
In March, the Pakistani representative at a video conference of Saarc leaders on the Covid-19 situation had triggered a controversy by raising the Kashmir issue. That event had been organised at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s suggestion. At the time, Indian officials had said Pakistan’s move was unwarranted and an attempt to politicise a humanitarian issue.