The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sinha scheme to upgrade Saarc

New Delhi, Jan. 10: In a renewed attempt at peace with Pakistan and in a serious bid to remove strains in bilateral relations with the other neighbours, India today suggested the setting up of a South Asian Union to bring closer economic and political cooperation among the countries in the region.

Delhi’s suggestion, which came from foreign minister Yashwant Sinha at a conference here, talks not about junking the moribund Saarc, but to upgrade it to a South Asian Union.

“It will not merely be an economic entity. It will acquire a political dimension the same manner in which the European Union has come to acquire a political and strategic dimension. That is the direction in which I suggest we move. I am not suggesting an end to Saarc but an upgradation of Saarc into a South Asian Union,” Sinha said. He expressed India’s willingness to negotiate a new agreement for it at the earliest if the idea found favour with the other countries.

The foreign minister also offered free access to India’s technology to all the South Asian nations, including Pakistan. Emphasising that he was not making any distinction in his offer, Sinha said in return he wanted the South Asian neighbours to be sensitive to India’s security concerns as much as India would be to theirs. “Quite clearly, this is one of the least of friendly things that one would expect,” he said.

Sinha argued that if the security concerns “become overpowering” than many other areas of cooperation are lost sight of temporarily and also in the long run.

The fresh offer for peace with Pakistan, though not directly put forward, comes in the wake of the Agni-I missile tests and renewed diplomatic rhetoric between the two South Asian nuclear neighbours. The US and other countries have joined in the chorus that recent developments could lead to heightened tension while urging Delhi and Islamabad to resume their stalled dialogue to bring down the temperature.

But Sinha suggested — in a way what is being repeated by the Indian government — that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee would announce his decision to attend the Saarc Summit in Islamabad the moment Pakistan takes a decision to normalise trade relations with Delhi.

Today’s conference was on cooperation in South Asia, where, among others, former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral was also present as were representatives from the neighbours.

The foreign minister argued that India’s size often created apprehension among neighbours, but pointed out that it should not be held against the country. Reassuring the neighbours that Delhi harboured no imperialistic or expansionist desires, Sinha stressed that the best way to mend relations would be to create a free trade area in South Asia.

He emphasised that the countries should highlight items in the “negative list” to iron out their differences. Suggesting that the negative list should be kept at the minimum and only to offer protection when there is fear that it will cause injury to the domestic industry. “If there are any such items, than let us sit down and exchange details on them. We could look at it as carefully as possible and in a spirit of friendship and accommodation,” he suggested.

Sinha admitted that people-to-people contact could be a good way of easing tension and normalising relations between the neighbours. “But once trade starts moving in the manner in which I am envisaging, then people-to-people contact will become easier,” he said, adding: “If we take this road, the misunderstandings of the past will automatically vanish and it will be possible for us to move ahead on the road to prosperity and we will be able to give a good quality of life to our people.”

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