ISLAMABAD: The fifth 'Heart of Asia' ministerial conference kicked off in Islamabad today with Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz delivering opening remarks at the meeting.
The theme of the meeting, jointly hosted by Pakistan and Afghanistan, is ‘Heart of Asia — Istanbul Process: Enhanced cooperation for countering security threats and promoting connectivity in the Heart of Asia region’.
Addressing the meeting, Aziz said that while the process matures, the focus must remain on strengthening engagement and collaboration "with a view to effectively combating the formidable challenges confronting the region in the field of security, as well as promoting regional economic interaction".
The former National Security Adviser said that a conducive political and security environment is vital for promoting regional economic cooperation and connectivity as socioeconomic development is hampered by the "dire security challenges" the region is mired in.
Therefore, he said, the theme of the 'Heart of Asia ─ Istanbul Process' is pertinent to the needs of the region.
Aziz asserted the process has brought "greater coherence to the work of other regional organisations and projects" focused in Afghanistan, such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and the CASA-1000 electricity transmission project, among others.
The PM's adviser said that confidence-building measures identified in the process document "are leading to enhanced regional engagement and cooperation of the 'Heart of Asia' countries" ─ specifically Afghanistan ─ in areas such as trade, economic cooperation, energy, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, disaster management, regional infrastructure and education.
Sartaj was flanked by Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry and Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai.
Aziz will hold a meeting with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the conference, Radio Pakistan reported.
'United approach towards counter-terrorism needed'
Hekmat Khalil Karzai in his opening remarks called for a united approach towards countering terrorism and violent extremism, Radio Pakistan reported.
He said the timing of the conference is critical as the region confronts many challenges and the activities of militant groups demand a joined effort towards fighting militancy in its various forms.
The Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister said his country attaches importance to maintaining strong relations with other regional countries for the promotion of economic activities and meeting other challenges and that a peaceful and stable Afghanistan lay in the best interests of the region.
The participation of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in the conference has given a new momentum to the ministerial conference.
Senior officials are expected to meet on the first day of the conference and the ministerial conference will be held on the second day. Wednesday's ministerial session will be jointly inaugurated by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Afghan president.
'Heart of Asia' confidence building measures
The Foreign Office said earlier that high-ranking delegations from 14 participating states, 17 supporting countries and 12 international and regional organisations are expected to participate in the conference.
It said Foreign Ministers from 10 countries have confirmed participation in the conference.
Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the United Arab Emirates are part of the initiative launched in 2011 for encouraging economic and security cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbours for dealing with the common problems of terrorism, extremism and poverty.
Six key areas in which the 14 countries have been pursuing confidence-building measures since the 2013 Almaty meeting are disaster management, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, trade and investment, regional infrastructure, and education.
Foreign ministers from 10 of the countries, including China and Iran, confirmed their participation, while others are being represented by senior officials. The process is supported by 17 other, predominantly Western, countries, and 12 international organisations which are also sending senior representatives.