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|July 21, 1998||
Focus shifts to SAARC, ASEAN meetings
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
With the Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh summit concluding on Tuesday morning, attention has now shifted to next week's meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation and the Association of South-East Asian Nations regional forum.
While the former summit will bring Prime Ministers A B Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharief together, the latter will see Singh, the premier's diplomatic trouble-shooter, encounter United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Planning Commission deputy chairman Singh met US Deputy Secretary of State Talbott on Tuesday morning for about 90 minutes. External affairs ministry officials said the talks were a wrap-up meeting, focussing more on detail rather than on substantive issues.
Observers feel some hard bargaining is on to find a via media on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the Clinton administration is determined that New Delhi sign at the earliest.
However, while India is unwilling to sign the CTBT unconditionally, the US insists it cannot be changed since that will involve more than hundred countries which have signed the treaty. The treaty, thus far, does not allow individual nations to sign on certain conditions, points one security analyst.
Besides the demand for lifting of sanctions and technology transfers, India needs more data about nuclear blasts for computer simulation. New Delhi is likely to demand the same -- as did China successfully -- in return for signing the CTBT. This will allow India to conduct virtual tests at its computer laboratories, observers say.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has a thin majority in Parliament and there is always the risk that Parliament will not ratify the CTBT, mandatory under the treaty. It is for this reason that the BJP government has to show major diplomatic gains to making signing the CTBT worth the political cost.
Both sides refused to comment on what transpired at the Singh-Talbott meeting, but it is understood that the two sides discussed security matters, disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation.
Said a US press official, ''Both sides are looking at areas of agreement. The talks were constructive.'' Asked for more information, she added: ''It is a process, not a one-shot thing. It is a steady movement.''
After Talbott and his entourage drove off to meet Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Singh, Foreign Secretary K Raghunath and other Indian officials were closeted in a meeting for about 45 minutes.
Singh and Talbott held lengthy talks on Monday after which an external affairs ministry statement said the discussions were marked by a spirit of working together to find common ground and to remove gaps in their governments' respective perceptions.
The two interlocutors told reporters that the talks were constructive and they would meet again in Washington in the later half of August.
Talbott and his delegation also met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Home Minister Lal Kishinchand Advani and former prime minister I K Gujral on Monday evening. The US official handed over a letter from US President Bill Clinton to Vajpayee.
With Talbott's departure for Islamabad on Tuesday afternoon, the attention has shifted to the 10th SAARC summit in Colombo, scheduled between July 29 and 31. Though the MEA is keen to downplay the event, international attention is inevitably focussed on the "informal bilateral summit" between Vajpayee and Sharief, likely on the first day itself when the SAARC leaders head for their retreat.
One Pakistan-watcher, however, warned that little should be expected from the Vajpayee-Sharief encounter. Pakistan has already declared that SAARC's progress is linked to improved Indo-Pak ties. Sharief may try and raise Kashmir since his country is keen to associate the nuclear dimension to the "unresolved issue of Kashmir."
However, SAARC's official thrust is on the economic agenda in the hope of making progress on the South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement. At the SAARC summit in Male, Maldives, last year, it was decided that SAPTA should finally lead to a South Asian Free Trade Agreement by 2001.
Senior MEA officials concede that the target of 2001 is ambitious and that the date may have to be delayed. But they stressed that talks are underway to reduce trade barriers on over a thousand products.
Another aspect that will be discussed at the Colombo summit is the Growth Quadrangle Idea, a grouping of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal. MEA officials insist that the Quadrangle Idea is autonomous of SAARC.
Given that the Colombo summit, under the shadow of the nuclear blasts, can only make symbolic progress on economic issues, India has greater chance of making the Growth Quadrangle Idea a success.
Additional reportage: UNI
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