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1/8/04 - SOUTH ASIA MEETING - 2004-01-09

Leaders of seven South Asian countries gathered this month in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Meeting as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC, the leaders adopted agreements on regional free trade and combating terrorism. In addition to Pakistan, the SAARC member countries are India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, and Maldives.

Under the trade agreement, the seven SAARC nations will begin drastically cutting tariffs in 2006. The agreement is aimed at moving South Asia toward economic union, including a region-wide currency.

The SAARC summit also gave Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf an opportunity to hold their first bilateral meeting in more than two years. Since their independence in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars, and tensions have remained high to the present day, especially in regard to Kashmir. Over the past decade, violence in Kashmir has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Indian and Pakistani officials released few details after the meeting but said in a joint statement that the two countries will resume a dialogue.

Adam Ereli, deputy spokesman for the State Department, says the U.S. is pleased that Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Musharraf met while attending the SAARC summit:

“And I would also add that other senior-level meetings have taken place between Indian and Pakistani officials. We warmly welcome these meetings, and we hope that they will lead to further engagement and dialogue between India and Pakistan. . . . [B]oth countries have taken a number of positive confidence-building steps over the past several months, and we certainly encourage them to continue this process.”

India and Pakistan are both close friends of the U.S. And both are countries with enormous potential. But to realize their potential, they need to move beyond their disputes. Then they will be free to focus fully on their respective domestic challenges, problems of regional stability, and their role in the world. It is good to see the South Asian nations, including India and Pakistan, moving toward increased cooperation.