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Honorable Prime Minister Koirala, Excellencies, Distinguished Colleagues, it is a pleasure to be here today representing the United States of America at the 18th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. Let me begin by congratulating the Government of Nepal and Secretary General Thapa for a tremendous job organizing this Summit and for extending such wonderful hospitality to us all.
Since 2007, when the United States joined SAARC as an observer, we have witnessed the region’s rapid economic rise and growing importance. And given that South Asia will likely be the most populous region by 2060, this year’s SAARC summit theme of “Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity” could not be more timely or appropriate to the needs of the region. We have heard words of optimism and determination today that gives us great hope for the region.
And indeed, it is a time of great hope and opportunity in the region. South Asians can be justifiably proud that every country in their region is a democracy. In the past 18 months, every country in the region has held elections, with the most recent being Afghanistan, where political leaders showed the courage to compromise and create a unity-government focused on enhancing stability and security for the Afghan people. In India we have seen another historic election with the largest ever electorate bringing into office an empowered single party government with a mandate for inclusive development that speaks to the hopes and aspirations of 1.2 billion Indians. Nepal, following its own successful elections, is moving to draft a constitution that completes its transition out of conflict and towards a more enduring peace.
For all of the countries in the region, the need of the hour is for a South Asia that is connected through trade and transit, where goods and people can move more freely and where power trading and water sharing become the currency of that connectivity.
We see great promise in the recent efforts by India and Nepal to advance power trade and hydro-power development cooperation and also in the agreement reached by Afghanistan and Pakistan on transit pricing for the Central Asia South Asia electricity transmission project – CASA 1000, which we are pleased to be supporting.
The United States fully supports these regionally led efforts and the focus on connectivity, energy, environment and economic cooperation and other areas put forward by SAARC members. Our own efforts have focused on promoting economic, energy, transit, and people-to-people connectivity across South Asia and beyond through our New Silk Road initiative and support for an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor.
We also strongly support efforts by SAARC to continue its pursuit of a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA). A fully implemented SAFTA would represent one of SAARC’s most significant achievements.
The recent deal brokered between the United States and India to ensure implementation of the Bali Accord has also paved the way for trade facilitation agreement which can bring tremendous benefits to the region by helping to harmonize customs regulations and procedures and reduce costs for small businesses to access regional and global markets.
But economic connectivity by itself is not enough to create enduring peace and prosperity. Fragile democracies in the region need to strengthen transparent and accountable governance, adopt environmentally sustainable growth policies and create inclusive political and economic systems that provide opportunity for all – especially for women and ethnic minority populations. SAARC must ensure that it is equally focused on good governance as a fundamental aspect of a regional growth strategy.
By partnering economic connectivity with transparent, accountable and inclusive government, SAARC Members can more effectively counter the forces of extremism and terrorism and provide a more hopeful future for the people of South Asia.
As you work together to build a more prosperous future for the region, I want to assure you that you will have the full support of the United States.
Not only will we continue to work bilaterally with individual Member countries on their economic development priorities, but we will work with the SAARC collective on its goals of regional integration and connectivity. Thank you Chairman, Excellencies, for the opportunity to be part of this 18th SAARC Summit.