Yashwant Sinha, India's Minister of External Affairs, said bilateral relations between India and the United States have dramatically improved over the last several years, and the growing spirit of cooperation between India and its neighbors in South Asia is unprecedented. "For us, the global stage is our calling, but South Asia is our home," Sinha said at a January 20, 2004 Director's Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "Therefore, South Asia is an integral part of our life, and naturally, a secure, peaceful and prosperous South Asia is important for our future."

Sinha's remarks came just two weeks after the end of the 12th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit on January 6 in Islamabad, Pakistan. The summit was widely hailed as a watershed for the region, thanks to breakthrough talks between rivals India and Pakistan and the negotiation of a free trade pact. The SAARC Summit, a meeting among the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Maldives, seeks to promote cooperation, growth and development among the nations.

Sinha stressed the importance of continued cooperation among countries in South Asia. "The South Asian region cannot afford to remain an isolated prisoner of political doubts, differences and discords of the past sixty years," Sinha warned. "By coming together, we will not be able to address all our individual challenges. We will, however, find ourselves more capable of dealing with them – individually and collectively."

Sinha made the case for a regional free trade agreement linking the countries, arguing that India's size is an asset that can benefit all the countries in the region. In 2002, exports from Sri Lanka to India grew by nearly 140 percent, which has led the two countries to expand the free trade agreement to cover more industries. Sinha said the per capita income of Bhutan is expected to double by the end of 2005, following the completion of a cooperative power plant project.

Beyond the economic benefits that will accompany improved economic ties, Sinha commented that "a spirit of friendship and cooperation can create an atmosphere that will help us address other challenges that bedevil our region – political disputes, terrorism, drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, environmental degradation, illegal migration, sharing of resources, and regional imbalances in economic development."

Relations between India and Pakistan are also continuing to improve, Sinha pointed out. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali on the margins of the summit and agreed to continue the dialogue in February 2004. "The two leaders expressed confidence that the resumption of the composite dialogue will lead to peaceful settlement of all bilateral issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, to the satisfaction of both sides," Sinha said.

In closing, Sinha proposed a ten-point plan for peace and prosperity in South Asia.

1. Advance democracy throughout the region.

2. Commit to peaceful resolution to all disputes.

3. Abjure support and actively prevent the activities of forces who seek to undermine the security and stability of each other, particularly, neighbouring countries.

4. Cooperate in combating terrorism, and other forms of cross-border crimes.

5. Adopt national policies that encourage broad-based economic development and address the concerns and sensitivities of our diverse population groups.

6. Foster greater economic engagement, cultural interaction and people-to-people contacts in the region.

7. Invest in cross-border infrastructure projects for energy, transport and water resources.

8. Invest in special funds and programs for poverty alleviation, health care, education and environment management.

9. Create a climate of opinion that emphasizes our South Asian identity and the many currents of commonalities that flow through our nations.

10. Work towards creating a common economic space, and, eventually an economic union.

Robert Hathaway, Asia Program Director, 691-4012
Drafted by Peter Bean, Outreach and Communications