Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday called for a videoconference summit of leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to discuss a common strategy to tackle COVID-19.
All leaders in the 8-nation regional grouping, except Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, welcomed Mr. Modi’s suggestion. It was also received with some surprise, as SAARC has had no summit level meeting since 2014, and has been shelved since due to India-Pakistan tensions, and Mr. Modi’s decision to not attend the SAARC summit in Islamabad.
Although Pakistan did not offer any immediate response to the message on Friday, officials in New Delhi indicated they were ready to organise the conference as early as Saturday.
“I would like to propose that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight coronavirus. We could discuss, via videoconferencing, ways to keep our citizens healthy. Together, we can set an example to the world, and contribute to a healthier planet,” said Mr. Modi in his message, which urged the leaders to “leave no stone unturned to ensure our people are healthy”.
The Ministry of External Affairs declined any comment on when the conference would take place, but a senior official told The Hindu that it was likely to be held “soon”. He said that the coronavirus situation had “lent itself to an opportunity” with SAARC.
South Asia accounts for only 125 of the 44,067 confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far, but there are fears of an escalation in the numbers given the density of population in the region. While SAARC member-states occupy just 3% of the world’s landmass, they account for 21% of its population.
Within hours of the tweets by Mr. Modi, Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih and Bhutan Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering tweeted their responses welcoming the idea of the coronavirus videoconference. Bangladesh’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam also tweeted on behalf of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, saying that Ms. Hasina “welcomes the proposal and looks forward to a constructive dialogue with [SAARC leaders] who consented to discuss the way forward at this testing time for the region and the world.” In Afghanistan, Sediq Sediqqi, spokesperson of the recently re-elected President Ashraf Ghani, announced Mr. Ghani’s readiness to devise a “unified strategy” to fight coronavirus in the region.
Meanwhile, the SAARC secretariat, based in Kathmandu with new Secretary General Sri Lankan diplomat Essala Weerakoon now at the helm, called the Mr. Modi’s offer a “timely proposal” and offered its services to facilitate the conference.
Mr. Modi has in the past held similar videoconferences to inaugurate infrastructure projects in neighbouring countries as well as for the launch of the GSAT-09 “SAARC satellite” in May 2017.
Set up in 1985, SAARC was the first such grouping for the South Asian region. However, in the last few years, due to the government’s decision to call off all talks with Pakistan until cross-border terrorism ends, New Delhi has shifted focus to other regional groupings that don’t include Pakistan, like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). It remains to be seen whether Mr. Modi’s offer to convene the SAARC leadership meeting, albeit just for the coronavirus crisis, and only over a videoconference, will lead to a revival of the SAARC forum itself.
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