Statement by the United States of America at the 17th SAARC Summit

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Addu City, Maldives
November 10, 2011

President Nasheed, distinguished heads of state and government, Secretary General Dhiyana Saeed, ladies and gentleman:

I am delighted to be here today to represent the United States Government at the 17th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. Let me start by congratulating the Government of the Maldives for their outstanding arrangements to host this Summit in such a pristine and beautiful setting, the southernmost reach of SAARC. SAARC first welcomed the United States as an Observer nation in 2007, and we look forward to the summit each year as a chance to broaden and deepen our partnership with all of the countries of South Asia.

This year’s SAARC meeting and its emphasis on “Building Bridges” comes at a particularly opportune time for the region and its international partners. Regional leaders gathered in Istanbul last week to reaffirm their commitment to a secure, stable, and prosperous Afghanistan in a secure and stable region. 85 countries and 15 international organizations are expected in Bonn on December 5th to endorse the Istanbul vision and how to support the important transitions taking place in Afghanistan.

There are no quick and easy solutions to the collective challenges ahead. But the United States remains firmly committed to helping facilitate a vision of regional trade ties and economic prosperity that will create jobs and opportunities for the people of the region.

Secretary Clinton outlined the contours of this vision in Chennai this summer, calling for the creation of a New Silk Road linking the economies of South and Central Asia together in a web of investment, trade, transit, and people-to-people connections.

In Istanbul last week, Afghanistan and its neighbors helpfully brought this idea one step closer to fruition, pledging cooperation on issues of mutual interest while agreeing to the principle of non-interference and full respect for Afghan sovereignty. The logic behind the New Silk Road vision – which we believe is ripe for implementation – represents the alternative to insecurity and extremism.

We understand that change will not take place overnight, but a number of recent developments across South Asia offer reason for significant hope. The United States is extremely encouraged by the positive recent steps taken by the Governments of India and Pakistan to initiate closer trade and commercial ties, and to seek further progress in a wide range of areas.

Increased economic linkages between India and Pakistan will create a natural foundation for a stronger bilateral relationship and – most importantly – yield dividends for citizens from both countries and the wider region.

We were also pleased by the historic transit trade agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and look forward to its full implementation. Numerous other bilateral agreements and outreach efforts between South Asian capitals are also in the works, and offer great promise in finally helping the region overcome its minimal economic integration, where currently less than five percent of total trade occurs between SAARC member states.

As the United States has found, trade with neighbors makes good economic sense – Canada and Mexico are two of our biggest international trading partners.

That is why we fully embrace the objectives of the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), one of SAARC’s most significant – if yet unfulfilled – achievements. A fully implemented SAFTA would provide a strong, stable, and transparent framework for investment and has the potential to foster greater trade and opportunity among SAARC members.

The economic potential of a more open and integrated South Asia – home to over one-fifth of the world’s population – is virtually unlimited. But in the twenty-first century, creating opportunities that can positively impact all corners of society must go well beyond policy actions to lift protectionist trade barriers – even though that is an important first step. It also entails an abiding commitment by governments to improve the way they do business in the service of their people.

In September at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, President Obama joined world leaders from forty-six nations to launch the Open Government Partnership, an approach that calls for governments around the world to recommit to transparency and accountability, to increase civic engagement, and to harness new technologies in the pursuit of better governance and a better world.

For its part, the United States firmly stands by its oft-expressed belief that SAARC, as an established, home-grown institution will have its best days in front of it once regional linkages in South Asia begin to blossom. Secretary Clinton’s recent decision to designate our Ambassador in Nepal as our lead U.S. official to SAARC was a signal of that conviction, and we have confidence that this year’s summit theme of “Building Bridges” is the right message moving forward for the countries of South Asia.

The United States will seek new ways to offer our resources and expertise to the countries of SAARC on education, cross-border energy linkages, economic reform, poverty alleviation, polio eradication, climate change, and more.

In 2011, the United States is on track to provide a total of over $4 billion in bilateral assistance for individual SAARC member states, and another $7.5 million for various regional assistance projects.

The United States again congratulates and thanks the Government of Maldives for its leadership and excellent hospitality, and rededicates itself to working with SAARC and all of the governments of South Asia to expand cooperation, prosperity, and opportunity in this vital region of the world.

Thank you.