On the eve of the 15th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to be held in Colombo August 2-3, the US has said it does not believe SAARC is ineffectual and irrelevant and a farce as some in the West and in the region itself contend--who dismiss it as nothing but a group photo-op every few years--and is confident it can grow to be as powerful and influential as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In an exclusive interview with rediff.com, Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs and the senior-most Administration official for the subcontinent, said, who will lead the US observer delegation to the SAARC conference in Colombo, said, "As you say, I know people don't always take it seriously," but asserted that Washington believes "that SAARC really has a lot of potential."
He argued that "if I look back 30 years to ASEAN in South East Asia, that was the situation. Nobody thought they were doing very much but over time, step by step, they built an idea of South East Asia and of trade relationships and an investment environment and political relationships that mattered and I think the opportunities is there at SAARC as well".
Boucher said, "SAARC is a structure that's flexible, that takes on a lot of big issues," and while acknowledging that "this region is facing a lot of troubles�terrorism is one�there is economic opportunity."
He bemoaned that "this region doesn't trade with itself as much as it should," and in this regard, lavished praised on Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] (who after winning the trust vote in Parliament on the US-India nuclear deal is expected to attend the meeting in Colombo) for his announcement "at the last SAARC meeting that he was going to lower duties and open duty-free opportunities in the region -- that was very important."
Boucher reiterated that "there are much more opportunities for trade inside the region that can be opened up �there are issues like water that are important and there are always going to be people with border and immigration issues that need to be taken up."
He said "some other parts of the world don't have even a meeting place, and at the very least, SAARC gives everybody a chance to get together and deal with some of these issues."
"But, I think it also offers the mechanisms to move forward and having a free trade idea, a free trade agreement, and then even if it starts slowly, over time you can really, really make something of this."
Boucher said Washington's "goal as observers is one, to make sure we understand where it's going, but also just to be there to encourage everybody to take it more seriously and invest more in it -- take the steps like Prime Minister Singh announced and really make something of this because the potential is really there and it could mean a lot to people in the region."
He reiterated issues like "trade opportunities, water supplies, peace and stability, opportunities to travel," are paramount and SAARC offers "a way to do this and we got to make use of this."