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Briefing by Foreign Secretary on Prime Minister’s visit to Thimphu for SAARC Summit

April 22, 2010

Official Spokesperson (Shri Vishnu Prakash): Good evening to you and thanks for waiting. As you know Prime Minister of India Dr. Manmohan Singh is leaving for Thimphu soon to attend the sixteenth SAARC Summit. Foreign Secretary Smt. Nirupama Rao, is here to brief you about PM's visit. She would be making an opening statement and thereafter would be happy to take a few questions. Let me also introduce my colleague Joint Secretary (SAARC) Mr. Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who is sitting to the right of Foreign Secretary. Ma'am the floor is yours.

Foreign Secretary (Smt. Nirupama Rao): Thank you and a very good afternoon to all of you.

The 16th SAARC Summit, to be held in Thimphu, Bhutan on 28 & 29 April 2010, marks 25 years of the establishment of SAARC. The Prime Minister of India Dr. Manmohan Singh will attend the Summit. Over the years, SAARC has emerged as a model of regional cooperation in dealing with the wide range of issues that impact directly on the lives and livelihoods of the people of the region. It has addressed issues of regional concern such as poverty, food security, trafficking in women and children, terrorism and drugs, etc. At the same time, the 25th anniversary milestone provides the Member States of SAARC with an opportunity to introspect not only on the experiences of the first 25 years and also on the course we need to chart in the future to maintain, and perhaps accelerate, the momentum that SAARC has achieved in recent years.

It is also important to note that this will be the first time that Bhutan will host a SAARC Summit. We have no doubt that SAARC will make impressive gains under Bhutan's able stewardship. Bhutan has chosen ‘Climate Change' as the theme of the Summit. As one of the world's ecologically most diverse, and yet one of the most ecologically fragile regions, South Asia is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with an urgent need of adaptive action. The Summit is expected to draw regional attention to this pressing issue. Bhutan has also proposed a Summit Declaration entitled "Towards a Green and Happy South Asia” and a separate Ministerial Declaration on Climate Change.

In the last few years, particularly since the 14th Summit in New Delhi in April 2007, SAARC has also begun to lay the institutional framework for regional cooperation. Regional institutions, in the form of the South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO) in Dhaka, the SAARC Arbitration Council in Islamabad, the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) in Thimphu, the South Asian University (SAU) in New Delhi, among others, are the building blocks of regional development.

We are happy to note that two important SAARC Agreements, on Environment and Trade in Services, are to be signed during the Summit. The SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services will enable the realization of the region's immense potential in service areas such as Health, Hospitality, Communications, Computer and information Services and Air Transport and is expected to augment intra-regional trade in services in a mutually beneficial manner.

The SAARC Convention on Environment is expected to promote cooperation among the SAARC countries in the field of environment and sustainable development. The scope of cooperation under the Convention would extend to "exchange of best practices and knowledge, capacity building and transfer of eco-friendly technology” in a number of areas, including climate change, coastal zone management, wildlife conservation and environmental impact assessment studies.

It is a matter of great satisfaction to us that the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) Secretariat is being inaugurated in Thimphu during the forthcoming Summit. You will recall that the SDF had been proposed by India at the 15th SAARC Summit in Colombo in August 2008. Two projects on Women's Empowerment, being undertaken by SEWA, and Maternal and Health Care are already under implementation. We also expect the Summit to endorse the rules, regulations, academic and business plans of the South Asian University in New Delhi.

One of the successes of SAARC has been the recent steps taken to implement the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). Intra-SAARC trade touched US $ 529 million in 2009, a considerable jump from the previous two years since SAFTA was implemented. Under SAFTA, we agreed in principle to prune our sensitive lists by twenty per cent. SAARC Member States have also agreed to reduce tariffs on 30% of tariff lines outside the Sensitive Lists to Zero.

I am happy to convey that regional projects initiated by India in Telemedicine, Tele-education, Rain Water Harvesting, Seed Testing Laboratories and Solar Rural Electrification, are under implementation in most SAARC Member States. The thrust of most of these projects and activities is at grassroots levels where the results are less visible perhaps but far more significant and rewarding. We believe that in this Silver Jubilee year of SAARC, its members can take satisfaction from the fact that SAARC is taking on the role of service provider for the economic and development needs of the people of the region, who number almost 1.5 billion.

Our focus in SAARC would be on improving regional connectivity through the development of new trade, transport and telecommunication links; the setting of common standards and harmonization of customs procedures; increasing understanding by greater people-to-people contacts, particularly among the youth, civil society, cultural personalities, academics and parliamentarians.

We are confident that the forthcoming SAARC Summit will provide ample opportunity for the SAARC Member States to work together to chart a blueprint for regional development over the next few years.

Question: Madam, you would have noticed that America, Australia and the United Kingdom have come up with advisories which suggest that at least six markets in Delhi itself could be targeted in the future. Is the Government aware of this? Has the Government taken any precautions about it?

Foreign Secretary: We are aware of those advisories and I have seen that the media has been flooded with those reports. What I would like to say is that the Government of India takes all precautions necessary to safeguard the security of our citizens in cities like New Delhi. You referred to Delhi but I refer of course to the whole country. Obviously we are seized of these matters and all necessary precautions are put in place to ensure that such events or such risks are taken care of.

Question: Is there any proposal of a fresh entry of any country into SAARC? If so, are you going to discuss it in this Summit?

Foreign Secretary: A fresh entry into SAARC? No, I am afraid not. We have eight member countries in SAARC and that is the way it is.

Question: Is there no new proposal?

Foreign Secretary: We have Observer countries in SAARC and that number will reach nine as of this Summit, because Australia and Myanmar will be the two new Observer countries at this Summit.

Question: Has a meeting been set up between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister? If so, what is the agenda?

Foreign Secretary: The answer is no. As of now, there is no such meeting.

Question: Will there be any other bilaterals?

Foreign Secretary: Yes, there have been requests from our other South Asian partners for bilateral meetings. Yes, there will be bilateral meetings. These will be with Sri Lanka, with Bangladesh, with Nepal and with Maldives. I believe you have been informed about the transit visit of President Karzai through New Delhi on his way to the SAARC Summit. Of course, Bhutan being the Chair of the Summit, there will be in-depth bilateral meetings with Bhutan.

Question: Madam has there been any request from the Pakistani side for a bilateral with Dr. Manmohan Singh in Bhutan? Also, could you tell us a little bit more about Mr. Karzai's visit? Is it something that was planned at the last minute or was this on the cards for some time?

Foreign Secretary: President Karzai is transiting through New Delhi. We thought it would be an excellent opportunity to request him to stay in New Delhi for the 26th and to have discussions on issues of mutual interest concerning the region as also our very strong and friendly development partnership, our time-tested relationship with Afghanistan. As far as the other question you asked, there has been no request from Pakistan for such a meeting, as I said, as of now.

Question: I wanted to ask you about the Pakistan meeting. Should we rule it out or is there a possibility?

Foreign Secretary: I do not believe in making forecasts about whether a meeting will take place or not. I would say that you should wait and let us see how the situation develops.

Question: Madam, the US Ambassador said a couple of days ago that the US is looking for new ways to partner with India in Afghanistan. Has there been any concrete proposal in that respect? You are not saying that a meeting has been set up between Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers. But what is the message as of now on the talks front? How are you looking at this likely visit?

Foreign Secretary: You are asking me if I have a message?

Question: What is the message to Pakistan?

Foreign Secretary: If there is a message I would not be talking about it in this forum. In any case since you have asked me that, I have always said, and you are aware of the Government's position, that dialogue represents a concrete method to move forward in our relationship. That has always been our position. That was the approach we took during the recent Foreign Secretary level talks with Pakistan. There has been no change in that position. As for the subject of Afghanistan and our discussions with the United States on the issue, let me say that the situation in our region, the relations that the United States has with Afghanistan, the relations that India has with Afghanistan, of course do figure in these discussions. I think you are aware, when I addressed the media in Washington the other day, we spoke about how President Obama had expressed his deep appreciation for our role in Afghanistan and the development activities that we have carried forward there, and how we have helped stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. So, we constantly exchange ideas on this issue. This is a subject that remains under discussion with the Government of the United States and indeed with all our other friends and partners.

Question: Has China admitted that they are going ahead with the dam on the Brahmaputra? Earlier they had said, no, run of the river, this and that.

Foreign Secretary: Let me clarify that. Again, when I briefed some of you after EAM's discussions in Beijing, I had mentioned that the Chinese side spoke about the fact that there is a run of the river project that they are doing for generation of hydroelectricity in the upper reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo, on the Brahmaputra river, in the Tibet Autonomous Region. What they said to us was that this is not a project that would divert water in any way, in other words affect downstream flow of water. This was said to us in the context of the discussions that the External Affairs Minister had with his counterpart the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. As you know, we have an expert level mechanism with China to discuss hydrological data and flood control data in the Brahmaputra and Sutlej rivers. The fourth meeting of the expert level mechanism will take place in a few days from now in New Delhi.

Question: So, they are not building dams. It is just run of the river.

Foreign Secretary: A run of the river project involves certain work on the river but it is not a storage dam for irrigation purposes. That is what they said.

Question: Madam, one question regarding Afghanistan. There are intelligence reports that Indians could be fresh targets of attacks that could be taking place. The Haqqani group is very active and they are enquiring about employees of the Punjab National Bank and also residential complexes of Indians in Afghanistan. Does the Ministry have knowledge about this and would this be taken up with President Karzai when he would be visiting India?

Foreign Secretary: I am not going to discuss what measures we take to safeguard the lives and the security of our nationals in Afghanistan. This is a sensitive issue. So, obviously I will not discuss it in an open forum. But I want to tell you that we are constantly vigilant and seized of these matters, and take all steps necessary to deal with the situation.

Question: Madam, as you said, the XVI SAARC Summit marks 25 years of SAARC cooperation. But it is only 529 million dollars of intra-SAARC trade which seems very low and especially …(Unclear)…… in the subcontinent. Then why is it that India is not doing enough to push this economic integration?

Foreign Secretary: I think you have to look at this in two parts. One is the trade among South Asian nations. This is apart from SAFTA. We have bilateral trade. We have preferential or free trade agreements with many of our South Asian neighbours, with some we do not. But intra-South Asian trade that we have is far more than the figure that you have quoted. I think it is almost 11 billion US dollars. So, this is quite apart from the trade figures that we cite under SAFTA. SAFTA started being implemented from 2006 onwards. If you look at the figures for 2006, I think it is about 16 million US dollars. From that to now, it is half a billion US dollars as of last year. So, that is the progress under SAFTA. But there is a larger picture here involved which is bilateral trade between all the South Asian countries of which the total volume is almost 11 billion US dollars. India is obviously promoting open connectivity, better trade relations with all our neighbours. There has been a great synergy that we are trying to develop and have developed in this field over the last few years.

Question: China is a fulltime Observer at SAARC already?

Foreign Secretary: Yes, since 2007.

Question: Apart from Pakistan, where you do not have the MFN arrangement between our country and Pakistan, with all the other countries there are these preferential trading arrangements that you talked about. We have these with every other country.

Foreign Secretary: You look at Sri Lanka, and Bhutan, and with Nepal of course we have a very open trading regime. Bangladesh has been able to take a lot of advantage of the opening up of trade controls under SAFTA. So, a large proportion of the increase in the volume of trade under SAFTA is accounted for by Bangladesh-India trade.

Question: But two years ago there was this Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Sri Lanka.

Foreign Secretary: That is still being discussed with Sri Lanka.

Question: What happened? Why has that not taken off?

Foreign Secretary: The Sri Lankan Government wanted a little more time to consider what the implications of CEPA would be. We are prepared to move at the pace that they want in this particular context. But we have a Free Trade Agreement with Sri Lanka that has worked very well from 2000 onwards, and it has completely changed the situation in terms of bilateral trade.

Question: Madam, last time when the Indian Prime Minister and Pakistan Prime Minister came face to face in Washington, a newspaper carried a headline, "Hands met but hearts did not.” Do you think that when they come face to face again there will be any change of hearts this time?

Foreign Secretary: I do not really want to forecast what is going to happen. But let me say that dialogue is always useful. It helps clear the atmosphere and especially between neighbours, such as India and Pakistan. Dialogue is really the way forward.

Question: At the February 25 Foreign Secretary level talks you said that situation was not ripe yet for resuming Composite Dialogue. The talks ended with the two sides agreeing to remain in touch. My question is, is the situation ripe now? Secondly, have you been in touch with your counterpart following February 25 in the last one month or so? And has Pakistan got back to India on those dossiers?

Foreign Secretary: Pakistan has not got back to us on those dossiers that we handed over during the February 25 meeting. No, I have not heard from the Pakistan Foreign Secretary after we met on February 25. Is the situation ripe for the resumption of composite dialogue? The situation has not really changed in that regard because we need action in terms of movement on the Mumbai terror trials that are taking place in Pakistan. The levels of infiltration have been a cause for concern in the last few months. The infrastructure, the activities of terrorist groups on territory controlled by Pakistan is still a cause for serious concern.

Official Spokesperson: Thank you very much.

(Concluded)

New Delhi
April 22, 2010



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