In a surprise development, the GOI has told us that it would welcome US participation as an Observer to SAARC.

45425 11/17/2005 1:25:00 PM 05NEWDELHI8749 Embassy New Delhi CONFIDENTIAL

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 NEW DELHI 008749 SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/17/2015 TAGS: PREL, ETRD, ECIN, AORC, BG, SL, NP, PK, ML, BU, IN, SAARC

SUBJECT: OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: GOI PROPOSES US OBSERVER STATUS AT SAARC

Classified By: PolCouns Geoffrey Pyatt, Jr. for Reasons 1.4 (B, D)

1. (U) For SA: SEE ACTION REQUEST PARA 8.

2. (C) Summary: In a surprise development, the GOI has told us that it would welcome US participation as an Observer to SAARC. At a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit briefing on November 16, MEA Joint Secretary (SAARC) P.K. Kapur told PolCouns that both Prime Minister Singh and Foreign Secretary Saran support a closer US role in the regional body and have requested feedback on US interest. Kapur was upbeat about the Summit, concluding that it had gone "better than expected." He described the three most important outcomes of the Summit as the membership invitation to Afghanistan, the decision to offer China and Japan Observer status, and the group's shift from generating studies to supporting specific projects. Highlighting the positive response to PM Singh's plenary speech at the Summit, Kapur hoped the region would make progress on GOI initiatives including a SAARC open skies agreement, a Regional Food Bank, a South Asian University and a Disaster Management Center. 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. End Summary.

SAARC Opens Up: US, China, Japan and Afghanistan

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3. (C) MEA Joint Secretary (SAARC) P.K. Kapur suggested to PolCouns on November 16 that the GOI is interested in American participation as an Observer to SAARC. Kapur commented that in recent GOI conversations about SAARC's widening boundaries, Prime Minister Singh was "very comfortable" and Foreign Secretary Saran was "quite positive" about the idea of US participation. Although "India would not suggest it," the GOI would "welcome US interest in becoming an observer." Kapur added that the debate over including China as an observer created a unique opportunity for India to suggest similar status for the US. "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.

4. (C) Kapur indicated that India looked forward to Afghanistan's membership in SAARC and confirmed rumors that Nepal attempted to block the invitation, he assured, at Pakistan's request. He commented the SAARC Chair would establish initial contact with Afghanistan and the process would proceed in accordance with the regulations laid out at the 1988 SAARC proceedings on new membership. Kapur predicted that Afghanistan would accede to SAFTA, but was unsure how long it would take. If "all goes smoothly," the Afghan Minister of Foreign Affairs will be invited to the Council of Ministers mid-term meeting in 2006. Otherwise, Afghanistan would begin membership at the 2007 SAARC Summit in New Delhi. Kapur described Nepal's efforts to link inviting Afghanistan as a member to granting the Chinese observer status, but declined to comment on whether this was in support of Pakistan's agenda. Since SAARC does not have any rules on admitting observers, the group decided to invite Afghanistan as a member at the Summit and formulate new guidelines for admitting observers at the Foreign Secretaries' meeting in April.

SIPDIS Summit went "Better than Expected"

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5. (U) Kapur was upbeat about the results of the twice-rescheduled summit and prospects for January 2006 SAFTA implementation. In addition to broadening membership, he listed SAARC's shift away from collecting information in favor of proposing specific projects as one of the Summit's biggest accomplishments. After twenty years of "feasibility studies to look at proposals," he lauded the November meetings as the "first Summit creating specific projects." Kapur also emphasized the Summit Declaration agreement to "undertake trade facilitation measures, including transit among SAARC countries," a proposal that is also part of the SAFTA agreement. He predicted that once Afghanistan becomes a member of SAARC, Pakistan will be obligated to allow transit of Indian goods heading to Afghanistan across its territory. SAFTA, when implemented, will also enable transit of Bangladeshi goods across India to Nepal and Indian goods across Bangladeshi territory from West Bengal to Tripura.

PM Singh's SAARC Vision

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6. (C) Kapur commented on the positive reaction at the Summit to PM Singh's plenary speech, and was hopeful that his proposal for an Open Skies Agreement within the SAARC zone would be acceptable to all sides. Each of the PM's proposals, including a South Asian University, a Regional Food Bank, and a South Asian Energy Dialogue had received widespread applause, he noted. Highlighting a SAARC open skies agreement as "an important pronouncement," he predicted that it would take some time to "pick up steam." India had not heard of any "expressions of resistance" or seen any negative attitudes in the press in other SAARC countries. He expected that the Secretariat leadership will help consolidate the proposals and pass them along to Foreign Ministries, which will then disperse them to the relevant ministries for action.

Comment: Opportunity Knocks

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7. (C) If we want a closer association with SAARC, now is the time to move. This is the first we have heard of any GOI interest in US involvement, but it reflects the dynamics of the current balancing act among South Asian powers. 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.

8. (C) ACTION REQUEST: We request an instruction from Washington conveying US appreciation for supporting our SAARC observer status.

9. (U) Visit New Delhi's Classified Website: (http://www.state.sgov.gov/p/sa/newdelhi/)

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