South Asia’s Whispering Enemies

ISLAMABAD – The leaders of the member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation met last week in the Maldives for their 17th annual summit. Previous SAARC summits achieved little in the way of regional cooperation. If they are remembered at all, it is for the progress made in getting India and Pakistan to talk to each another. While this time was no different, there are growing signs of a thaw in relations.

Improvement in the India-Pakistan relationship – the main obstacle to greater economic cooperation in South Asia – has come whenever the two countries’ governments have agreed to work together to achieve a common good. That happened in 2004, when, after agreeing to initiate what they called a “composite dialogue” that would cover eight issues that had kept them apart for decades, India and Pakistan also agreed to work towards the creation of the South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA). Without such limited agreements, stasis in South Asia is the rule.

SAFTA was launched in July 2006, but it did little to increase trade between India and Pakistan, which has barely developed since 1947, when the two countries fought the first of many trade – as well as real – wars against each other. In November 2008, after a group of terrorists attacked Mumbai, India’s financial center, India accused Pakistan of involvement in the attack and suspended all dealings with its neighbor. The composite dialogue was put on hold, with both sides unable to cast off the heavy burden of decades of hostility and intense rivalry.

Nevertheless, bilateral relations have warmed slightly over the past 18 months. The process began at a meeting in Bhutan between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India and Yousaf Raza Gilani, his Pakistani counterpart. India agreed to begin talking again with its neighbor, accepting Pakistan’s argument that it, too, was a victim of terrorism. Since that meeting, the two countries’ prime ministers have met four times, always on the sidelines of international gatherings. Their foreign ministers have met three times, and their commerce ministers once.