KATHMANDU: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will hold meetings on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit with all the leaders except his Pakistani counterpart Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, an Indian official said claiming Islamabad had not requested a meeting.
South Asian leaders met in Kathmandu Wednesday with regional superpower India seeking to boost trade and reinvigorate ties in the face of growing Chinese influence in its backyard, hampered by its bitter rivalry with Pakistan.
The region’s first summit in three years follows some of the worst cross-border violence in the disputed region of Kashmir in a decade, and comes as Nato-led troops prepare to pull out of Afghanistan, intensifying the India-Pakistan rivalry for influence there.
It is also the first time the eight leaders are meeting for the first time since the election of a new government in New Delhi that is taking a more assertive stance on both China and Pakistan.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will hold his first talks with Afghanistan’s new President Ashraf Ghani on the summit’s sidelines on Wednesday, as New Delhi seeks to develop its involvement in a country that Pakistan considers part of its sphere of influence.
Much of the attention has focused on whether the leaders of India and Pakistan will meet on the sidelines of the summit however, PM Nawaz was reported as saying the ball was in India’s court after New Delhi cancelled talks earlier this year.
“After the recent snub from India, which cancelled foreign secretary-level talks, Pakistan is not going to take the initiative. It will depend whether Modi says he wants to meet,” Pakistani political analyst Talat Masood told AFP.
Hopes of a move towards reconciliation were raised when Modi invited Pakistan’s prime minister to his swearing-in ceremony, but his right-wing nationalist government has adopted a more aggressive policy on Pakistan than its centre-left predecessor.
Modi warned during the recent upsurge in violence in Kashmir that “times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated”.
On Tuesday, Modi oversaw a billion agreement to build a hydropower plant in neighbouring Nepal, where China has invested heavily in recent years, saying he wanted to “move forward” with deals long delayed by mutual mistrust.
But the mistrust between India and Pakistan – widely seen as the main obstacle to greater South Asian integration – is unlikely to be resolved so easily.
“Saarc’s main problem is that Saarc is basically about India and Pakistan, with the Afghanistan dimension thrown in now,” said Sujeev Shakya, chairperson of the Nepal Economic Forum.
Trade between the Saarc nations – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – has grown from under 0 million in 2008 to 8 million in 2012, according to Saarc figures.
But it still accounts for less than five per cent of the region’s total commerce, according to the Washington-based Brookings Institution. By contrast, trade between East Asian nations accounts for nearly 35 per cent of that region’s total.
Security is also likely to be discussed after al Qaeda announced a new South Asia branch and claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a Karachi naval yard.
Analysts said domestic political concerns would likely take precedence during the Saarc summit, with Modi eager to appear tough on Pakistan during local elections in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Authorities in Kathmandu have spent a reported million on sprucing up the city, repairing its notoriously potholed streets and declaring a two-day public holiday to avert traffic gridlock.
But there is little optimism that much will be achieved.
“It’s time to develop other regional groupings instead of getting bogged down by Saarc, where the conflict between India and Pakistan is a huge obstacle to progress,” said Shakya.
‘No proxy wars in Afghanistan’
Afghanistan’s new President Ashraf Ghani said Wednesday he would not allow anyone to conduct a proxy war in his country after warnings that the rivalry between India and Pakistan could spill across their borders.
Nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan have long accused each other of using proxy forces to try to gain influence in Afghanistan.
But the departure of Nato combat forces from Afghanistan has raised fears that their rivalry could escalate, further destabilising their troubled neighbour.
“We will not allow our territory to be used against any of our neighbours. But we will not permit anybody to conduct proxy wars on our soil either,” said Ghani at a meeting of South Asian leaders in Nepal that included India Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Ghani’s predecessor Hamid Karzai frequently accused Islamabad of trying to destabilise the Kabul government by giving sanctuary to Taliban fighters.
Pakistan was one of only three countries that recognised the mainly Pashtun Taliban regime that ruled in Kabul before being toppled in late 2001.
Without mentioning Pakistan by name, Ghani said that state sponsorship of non-state actors could have damaging effects.
“It should be clear that such measures have blowback effects, destabilising the state system,” he said.