Putting cross-border terrorism on top of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation agenda, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Thursday said tensions between India and Pakistan do have an impact on the forum, wondering whether the 8-nation group can continue.
The economic activity among the 8-member nation block is low and there is virtually no integration in the South Asian sub-continent, he said, while asking if SAARC is willing to go in for deeper cooperation and integration.
When asked about impact of the current tension between India and Pakistan that has resulted in the cancellation of SAARC summit, Wickremesinghe said: "These are issues that South Asia has to grapple with. It has an impact on SAARC, whether SAARC can continue or not?"
Addressing a press conference at the India Economic Summit in New Delhi, he further said: "Cross border terrorism is on top of the agenda. Even though we don't want it to be, it has got there."
Stating that most of the issues are between Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, he said: "Let's hope things are resolved."
Commending Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other Indian political leaders, including Congress President Sonia Gandhi and ex-prime minister Manmohan Singh, for being very restrained and for far sighted approach, Wickremesinghe said: "It is a very difficult situation in which media can drive you to take extreme steps which are not conducive... I know the difficulties, I have gone through that. You have been taking a really diplomatic approach. It shows the maturity as far as the world leadership is concerned and I think the approach should be to back the political leaders."
On economic co-operation among SAARC members -- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka -- Wickremesinghe lamented that the activity is low and there is virtually no integration in the South Asian sub-continent.
"Is SAARC willing to go in for deeper cooperation and integration?" he wondered.
With such low integration, he said, already, SAARC members, including Sri Lanka, have organised/BIMSTEc "but it's progress (too) is very slow".
"While others are organising regional fora, we are going for bilaterals. India is bigger than the West European sub continent. There can be diverse economic models around India... India is a regional power," Wickremesinghe said.
The number of bilateral agreements between countries in South Asia can well be built up into one regional agreement. It will be far more focused, he added.
On Sri Lanka's expectations, he said the country has much in common with South Indian states.
"There should be deeper integration and at the same time carve out a special area that is Sri Lanka and five other Southern Indian states which has about USD 500 billion GDP," he said.
IMAGE: Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe is in India for a 3-day visit. Photograph: Ranil Wickremesinghe/Twitter