The United States was surprised by an Indian suggestion in 2005 that it consider participation in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and Washington saw that as a possible attempt by New Delhi to “balance” Pakistan's request to include China in the grouping.

Nine countries have been given observer status. Since the 14th SAARC Summit in New Delhi, they have attended the inaugural and closing sessions of the summits.

A U.S. diplomatic cable dated November 17, 2005 (45425: confidential), accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, deals with the possible logic behind India sounding the U.S. on the proposal.

The cable, sent by U.S. Political Counselor Geoffrey Pyatt Jr., said that at a briefing on the 2005 SAARC Summit, Ministry of External Affairs Joint Secretary (SAARC) P.K. Kapur had told him that both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran supported a closer U.S. role in the regional body and requested feedback from the U.S.

Mr. Kapur told the U.S. diplomat that the membership invitation extended to Afghanistan and the decision to offer China and Japan observer status were among the most important outcomes of the Summit.

“The offer for US Observer Status may be an attempt to balance Pakistan's request to include China, but it is a welcome opportunity to play a more prominent role in promoting US foreign policy goals for South Asian integration and reflect India's confidence in its relationship with the US,” the cable said.

The U.S. diplomat quoted Mr. Kapur as saying that Prime Minister Singh was “very comfortable” and Foreign Secretary Saran was “quite positive” about the idea of U.S. participation.

Although “India would not suggest it,” New Delhi would “welcome US interest in becoming an observer.” Mr. Kapur added that the debate over including China as an observer created a unique opportunity for India to suggest a similar status for the U.S.

The cable said: ‘“If the US wants a closer association with SAARC anytime in the next ten years,' he observed, ‘you should tell us now.' He requested feedback before the April 2006 Special Session of the Standing Committee of Foreign Secretaries, when the leaders will likely agree on a mechanism for Chinese and Japanese Observer status.”

The cable added that Mr. Kapur indicated that India looked forward to Afghanistan's membership in SAARC and confirmed rumours about Nepal's attempts to block the invitation at Pakistan's request.

In his comment on the Indian suggestion, the U.S. diplomat said that if the U.S. wanted closer association with SAARC, it was the right time to move. He viewed the Indian invitation as a reflection of the dynamics of the current balancing act among South Asian powers.

The cable further noted:

“In return for Afghanistan's membership, Pakistan wanted Chinese involvement. Since India was not able to block this proposal, and since China has agreed to India's full participation at the East Asian Summit, New Delhi went along with Chinese and Japanese observer status.

“This invitation may be India's attempt to devalue China's observer status, but it is nonetheless a welcome opportunity for the US to support South Asian Integration. It also reflects India's growing trust in its strategic partnership with the US. We should grab this offer with both hands.”

(The Pakistan Cables are being shared by The Hindu with NDTV in India and Dawn in Pakistan)