Saarc Visit Interview

Nepal pushes for Modi-Sharif meeting

As SAARC leaders gather in Kathmandu, the Nepal government is working hard, not only on last minute arrangements for the SAARC agenda, but also to try and push for Prime Minister Modi and Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif to break the ice in a one-on-one meeting. Commerce Minister Sunil Bahadur Thapa spoke about their efforts in an exclusive interview to Diplomatic Editor Suhasini Haidar in Kathmandu

Nepal, host of the 18th South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation summit here, is playing peacemaker, to try and ensure Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have a bilateral “pull-aside” during the summit, even as both governments kept everyone guessing.

Speaking to a Nepali television channel, Nepal’s Foreign Minister said that officials were trying “crack the nut “ or break the logjam between both the countries, even as tensions between the two biggest SAARC member countries threatened to overshadow the summit.

In an exclusive interview to The Hindu, Nepal’s Commerce Minister Sunil Thapa said he was “absolutely sure” the two leaders would talk during the summit. “It is the need of the hour that the region must go forward, especially on economic issues,” Mr. Thapa said. “And for that, all leaders must speak to each other during the SAARC summit.”

He said that a pull-aside would probably occur during the leader’s retreat on Thursday at the Dwarika resort in Dhulikhel, outside Kathmandu. “Whether it is over a cup of coffee, or a mulligatawny soup, Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif will find many opportunities to speak to each other, and I am sure they will do that.”

However, Indian officials remained non-committal. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will meet her Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz during the Foreign Minister’s consultations on Tuesday, and any plans for a bilateral meeting would only follow discussions between them.

“Wait till tomorrow,” Ms. Swaraj told reporters on Monday when they asked her about the speculations.

Meanwhile, Mr. Aziz said “Pakistan is ready for talks if India initiates the request.” No meeting between the two sides had been scheduled as of Monday evening, when he landed in Kathmandu, he said.

The SAARC summit will mark the first time the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers will come together since May 2014, when Mr. Sharif attended Mr. Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in Delhi. The two leaders failed to meet when they visited New York for the UNGA, after India called off foreign secretary talks. According to one official, it will be very difficult for the two leaders to avoid each other during the plenary session, and impossible to do so during the Dhulikhel retreat.

“The difference between 2002 [when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and General Pervez Musharraf did not have a bilateral] and 2014 is that there will be a retreat where only the leaders will meet.” In 2002, the Nepali government had to cancel the planned retreat in Pokhara because of India-Pakistan tensions.

Interview with Commerce Minister Sunil Bahadur Thapa:

What are your hopes from the SAARC summit. Despite regional integration being a key theme, SAARC is the least integrated bloc in the world, compared to the EU, ASEAN etc….

I am very hopeful, firstly because the key agreements that have already found support in SAARC countries are all related to integrating the region through closer links, like the agreement on easing motor vehicles and passenger traffic, railways, and energy cooperation. Secondly when we used to speak about SAARC initiatives, it used to be government-centric. Now these initiatives like railways, power etc, are private sector and people-to-people centric.

You are right, when we look at the intra-regional trade under 5%, or the total trade volume, it is much too low. But I think these are areas we can rectify if we decide to. Particularly given that Prime Minister Modi’s vision for the neighbourhood is also economic-driven. I think the SAARC agenda is going to be driven by economics, not politics.

But even in the past, SAARC agreements like SAFTA (free trade agreement), on visas, connectivity etc..have made no progress. What makes you optimistic that even these agreements about to be signed will be actualized?

I think it isn’t correct to say nothing has been achieved. But we cant live in isolation. We must see how much the world has changed and what is expected from the South Asian region. It can’t be a showpiece.

Q. Given that the two biggest SAARC members, India and Pakistan are not even speaking to each other, will that overshadow the SAARC summit

It should not, and I don’t think it will. All the leaders are coming here with the spirit of dialogue and mutual cooperation. It is the need of the hour that the region must go forward, especially on economic issues. And for that all leaders must speak to each other during the SAARC summit.

Is the Nepal government playing peacemaker, as Foreign Minister Mahendra Pandey has hinted in an interview, saying “We are trying to crack the nut” of the logjam.

Don’t worry, these leaders are quite capable of ‘cracking the nut’ by themselves. But this is why we have the retreat at Dhulikhel, so that the leaders can be by themselves. Whether it is over a cup of coffee, or a mulligatawny soup, Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif will find many opportunities to speak to each other, and I am sure they will do that.

Finally, China is an observer country, but it wants a bigger role in SAARC. Should that be considered, given that most SAARC countries have higher trade figures with China than they have with the rest of the region combined?

Well, observers have an important role to play at SAARC too. Also, any changes to the original SAARC charter of 1985 can only happen with the consent of all the member countries.

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 7:38:11 PM |

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