Kathmandu, July 9: India and Pakistan have agreed to exchange lists of items they would like to include in the preferential trade arrangement, in the first signs of a thaw at the Saarc forum.
The lists will be exchanged in the next meeting of the South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (Sapta), scheduled for September.
But though this could be seen as a positive development, there is little hope of a meeting on the sidelines between foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal and his Pakistan counterpart Riaz Khokar.
Sibal has scheduled bilateral meetings with his counterparts in all other five Saarc nations. He is to meet the foreign secretaries of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal tomorrow. Meetings with counterparts in Bhutan and Maldives were lined up this evening, but had to be cancelled as the discussions at the Saarc senior officials’ meet went on much longer than expected.
Indications are that the meetings will be rescheduled in the next two days. But there is nothing at the moment for Khokar.
The decision to exchange lists, however, is an indication that tomorrow the foreign secretaries of the seven-member Saarc would be able to tentatively agree on a date for the next summit. The next summit is to be held in Islamabad.
The senior officials who met today discussed inclusion of new technical committees to deal with issues like tourism and information technology as well as the Saarc’s stand on dealings with other economic groupings like the Asean and the European Union.
India has been insisting that unless there is forward movement on the trade and economic front in Saarc, it would be meaningless to hold a summit. Delhi’s frustration stemmed from Pakistan’s reluctance to show any indication of normalising trade relations with India.
But a few days ago, officials in South Block indicated that if Pakistan moves 73 items from the negative list to the positive list, it could lead to some significant movement forward.
Delhi was aware that Islamabad had already taken these steps, but was waiting for them to be reflected in the Pakistani official gazette.
Though the issue did not come up for discussion formally today, informal indications were that Pakistan had already brought the items to the positive list.
“We are convinced that Pakistan has taken these steps and, therefore, we have agreed to exchange the list in the September meeting of Sapta,” a senior Indian official participating in the negotiations said.
However, there is still some confusion on the number of items that have been moved out of the negative list. According to Islamabad, the number is 78, but Delhi claims that there were 73 items on the negative list that it had expected to be removed.
The Islamabad summit gathers special significance not only because it will be held after over two years — the last summit was held in Kathmandu in January 2002 — but also because it will give the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan an opportunity to meet on the sidelines.
If and when this happens, it will give a big boost to the peace process initiated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The fact that other members were worried about strained Indo-Pakistan relations once again coming in the way of the movement of Saarc was reflected in some of the speeches today.
“I believe this session will be instrumental in reviewing the progress in the implementation of past decisions and in injecting further momentum, leading towards an early convening of the next summit,” Nepal Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa said in his inaugural address to the senior officials.
Nepal foreign secretary Madhu Raman Acharya said the current session holds a special significance since it was being held after a gap of 10 months. “It is a matter of satisfaction that there is a consensus on the need to convene such a special session.” He felt the senior officials would be able to create a conducive atmosphere for the early convening of the next Saarc summit.