KATHMANDU: South Asian leaders will meet in Kathmandu Wednesday with regional superpower India seeking to boost trade and reinvigorate ties in its backyard, but analysts say little can be achieved while its bitter rivalry with Pakistan persists.
The leaders of the eight South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries are meeting for the first time since the election of a new Indian government that is eager to avoid losing influence to rival power China.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will hold his first talks with Afghanistan’s new President Ashraf Ghani on the summit’s sidelines on Wednesday, as New Delhi seeks to develop its involvement in a country that Pakistan considers part of its sphere of influence.
On Tuesday he oversaw a $1 billion agreement to build a hydropower plant in neighbouring Nepal, where China has invested heavily in recent years, saying he wanted to “move forward” with deals long delayed by mutual mistrust.
But the mistrust between India and Pakistan — widely seen as the main obstacle to greater South Asian integration — is unlikely to be resolved so easily.
The region’s first summit in three years follows some of the worst cross-border violence in the disputed region of Kashmir in a decade, and comes as NATO-led troops prepare to pull out of Afghanistan, intensifying the India-Pakistan rivalry for influence there.
“SAARC’s main problem is that SAARC is basically about India and Pakistan, with the Afghanistan dimension thrown in now,” said Sujeev Shakya, chairman of the Nepal Economic Forum.
“It would be far better if SAARC were to break down its structure and a trade grouping were to emerge between Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Myanmar,” he told Agence France-Presse, adding such a grouping would “accomplish more on the trade front”.
Trade between the SAARC nations — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — has grown from under $140 million in 2008 to $878 million in 2012, according to SAARC figures.
But it still accounts for less than five percent of the region’s total commerce, according to the Washington-based Brookings Institution. By contrast, trade between East Asian nations accounts for nearly 35 percent of that region’s total.
Three agreements have been prepared ahead of the summit, two on improving cross-border road and rail connections and one on making it easier for countries in the power-starved region to trade in electricity.
Cross-border trade is on the agenda, along with poverty alleviation, public health, agriculture and tourism.
Security is also likely to be discussed after Al-Qaeda announced a new South Asia branch and claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a Karachi naval yard.
Authorities in Kathmandu have spent a reported one billion rupees ($10 million) on sprucing up the city, repairing its notoriously potholed streets and declaring a two-day public holiday to avert traffic gridlock.
Much of the attention has focused on whether the leaders of India and Pakistan will meet on the sidelines of the summit, after New Delhi called off senior-level talks with Islamabad in August.
Hopes of a move towards reconciliation were raised when Modi invited his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony, but his right-wing nationalist government has adopted a more aggressive policy on Pakistan than its centre-left predecessor.
Modi warned during the recent upsurge in violence in Kashmir that “times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated”.
India’s foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said late Tuesday that the two leaders had an “exchange of courtesies” after arriving in Kathmandu, but that no formal meeting had yet been scheduled.
Analysts said domestic political concerns would likely take precedence during the SAARC summit, with Modi eager to appear tough on Pakistan during local elections in Indian-administered Kashmir.
“After the recent snub from India, which cancelled foreign secretary-level talks, Pakistan is not going to take the initiative. It will depend whether Modi says he wants to meet,” Pakistani political analyst Talat Masood told Agence France- Presse.