Heads of state from eight South Asian nations were united yesterday in calling for a move from words to action to lift millions out of poverty.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh praised the "economic vibrancy and social change" in SAARC nations which are growing at a strong 5 percent a year.
"The question before us is whether to seize this unique opportunity that beckons," he said. "The time has come to move SAARC from a declaratory phase to action and implementation."
Originally formed in 1985, the group has kept its original composition of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka with Afghanistan becoming the eighth official member yesterday.
Its goal is to create close economic integration, free trade and cultural links between member states.
One of its biggest plans is for a complete free trade system running across all its member states. Unfortunately, tensions between India and Pakistan have prevented this from becoming a reality.
Singh said India, as the group's largest country, would bear "asymmetrical responsibilities" by allowing zero-duty market access to the poorest SAARC countries by the end of the year, whilst also removing trade barriers.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz admitted South Asia was mired in conflict management which perversely drained its resources and stopped SAARC from forging ahead with its aims.
"We need to ask ourselves as to how relevant is SAARC to our people? How has it impacted their lives?" Aziz said. "These are some challenging questions that we ... must answer."
Aziz called for all disputes between members to be solved through dialogue and compromise, a factor which would build trust, economic inter-dependency and allow free trade.
The issue of terrorism was also a major talking point.
"It is our common duty to fight extremism and terrorism in all forms and sources, including political sponsorship and financing," said Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse warned that terrorist groups would continue to blossom in South Asian nations if collective international efforts were not rapidly made.
"Our region as a whole is not safe from barbaric terrorist groups," he said, in a thinly-veiled attack on the Tamil Tiger attack on an air base on the outskirts of the Sri Lankan capital.
Apart from China, representatives from Japan, South Korea, the United States and the European Union were present as observers.
(China Daily April 4, 2007)