KATHMANDU - The future of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) is directly linked to normalisation of bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, the two major partners and main stakeholders in South Asia.

This candid opinion was expressed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on board a special plane while talking to accompanying media representatives little before his landing at the Tribhuvan International Airport, where he was warmly received by Nepalese Deputy Prime Minister Prakasa Man Singh.

Nawaz is in Kathmandu along with four other prime ministers – Sheikh Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bhutanese Premier Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay and his Nepalese counterpart Sushil Koirala. Three presidents attending the Saarc Summit are: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The Nepalese capital on Tuesday remained buzzing with massive diplomatic activity and all eyes were set to see Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Premier Modi to meet on the sidelines of 18th Saarc Summit opening here today (Wednesday).

Nepalese Foreign Minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey, who is very actively engaged in bringing Modi and Nawaz across the table, has said that chances of expected meeting between the two prime ministers at the margins of the Summit were very high. He indicated that the venue of the meeting could be Hotel Soaltee Crown Plaza, where both the premiers are staying.

Leading English daily The Himalayan in a lead story claimed that Indo-Pak officials already in Kathmandu had informed the host government that both Modi and Nawaz had agreed in principle to meet in an ice-breaking session expected to take place today (Wednesday).

In his informal chat with media persons on the plane, Premier Nawaz said it was very unfortunate to observe that Saarc would be 30 years old next month and yet it was far from achieving its basic objective of bringing peace, harmony and prosperity to the people of South Asia.

He said there are several viable regional organisations in the world, including the European Union, Asean and Shanghai-8. The EU members have common currency and passport, he said, and added that Saarc has not moved in any such direction. He did not hesitate in saying that the tension-ridden India-Pakistan bilateral relations were main hurdle in the progress of Saarc.

When asked if he was hopeful of resumption of composite dialogue with India, Nawaz said this question should be addressed to the Indian prime minister. Qualifying his statement, the prime minister said he and his Indian counterpart had decided in New Delhi on Foreign Secretary level talks between the two countries to be held in August this year but they were unilaterally cancelled by India. “We were greatly pained by this unilateral action.”

PM Nawaz Sharif said now the initiative is in the hand of the Indian leadership to pick up the thread where it was lost. However, Pakistan would welcome any such move by New Delhi that leads to positive contacts at the highest levels, he added.

Agencies add: Nawaz Sharif told journalists, Pakistan would continue playing its role in making the Saarc an effective body. He said Pakistan wanted the transformation of Saarc region on EU lines.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security Sartaj Aziz interacted briefly with Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj here on the margins of the Saarc Foreign Ministers’ meeting during which they exchanged pleasantries. Aziz and Swaraj participated in the foreign ministers’ meeting which deliberated on the agenda of the summit.

“I met him out of courtesy. It is a common courtesy that when representatives of different countries meet at an international forum, they greet each other and this is how we met,” Swaraj said when asked about her interaction with Aziz.

Their brief interaction came amid speculation over a possible meeting between prime ministers Nawaz and Modi. Asked about whether a Nawaz-Modi meeting was on the cards, Swaraj said, “I had said yesterday. Please wait.” When asked about the meeting, Aziz refused to comment.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is in Khatmandu to share with the regional leaders his desire for a “peaceful neighbourhood” where only meaningful cooperation can come up to the expectations of 1.5 billion people living in the region.

He will join other regional leaders at the City Hall - Rastriya Sabha Griha today at the inaugural and closing ceremonies. He will be meeting Nepalese President Ram Baran Yadav and Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, besides other leaders during his stay.

A senior Foreign Office official said Pakistan firmly believed that the full potential of Saarc could only be fully realised if differences, particularly the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, were resolved peacefully through a sustained dialogue process between Pakistan and India. The Saarc Charter however forbids any debate on conflicts and disputes. 

Pakistan believes that the SAARC region has the potential to become a factor for global economic growth in the 21st century, owing to its huge resources. However the rivalries and lack of trust among the member-states have so far impeded greater regional integration. It has limited the current trade volume amongst the eight member states to mere $3 billion, far less than the region’s true potential.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s participation in the Summit reflects Pakistan’s support to the regional association’s efforts in alleviating poverty and promoting literacy in the region. Pakistan is also a vocal supporter of strategies in the fields of agriculture, food security, climate change and cooperation in sharing indigenous sources of energy, including solar, wing, bio and hydro.

The Khatmandu Summit is being attended by a number of observers from China, Japan, Australia, the United States and the European Union. The Summit has been preceded by preparatory meetings at the senior official and ministerial level. Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry met his counterparts at the Saarc Standing Committee Meeting, which was followed by the meeting of Sartaj Aziz, Adviser to the Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs.