The beautiful turquoise water beckoned beneath our small airplane as the U.S. delegation descended into Addu Atoll, the southernmost point of the Maldives -- an island nation located in the center of the Indian Ocean. We arrived in Addu to participate in the 17th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, a yearly gathering of the Heads of State from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The United States joined the organization as an Observer in 2007. Leadership of SAARC is a rotating responsibility among member states and -- as current SAARC Chair -- this year it is the Maldives' turn to host.
The countries of South Asia formed SAARC in 1985 to pursue regional economic cooperation and collectively address other areas of mutual interest. But pursuing common regional objectives has not been easy. Today, less than five per cent of all trade in South Asia occurs between SAARC members. This lack of integration has been a major obstacle to South Asia's economic growth.
However, a number of positive developments across South Asia offer significant hope. The United States has been extremely encouraged by the recent steps taken by the Governments of India and Pakistan to initiate closer trade and commercial ties. Increased economic linkages between India and Pakistan will create a natural foundation for a stronger bilateral relationship and -- most importantly -- yield dividends for citizens from both countries.
We were also buoyed by the historic 2010 transit trade agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, numerous other bilateral agreements and outreach efforts between SAARC member capitals are beginning to blossom, a promising sign for a region home to over one-fifth of the world's population.
Although the next two days were a whirlwind of activity and meetings, we heard the same message repeated by all of the delegations again and again -- a desire to foster greater trade and opportunity among SAARC members. This vision of inter-connectivity is something the United States fully supports. During a speech in Chennai this summer, Secretary Clinton outlined the contours of just such a vision, calling for the creation of a New Silk Road linking the economies of South and Central Asia together in a web of investment, trade, transit, and people-to-people linkages.
The economic future of a more open and integrated South Asia is virtually unlimited, and as an established, home-grown institution SAARC is in a unique position to help. The United States, too, is ready to assist. That is why Secretary Clinton recently designated the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal as our lead U.S. official to SAARC.
Looking ahead, we will seek new ways to offer our resources and expertise to the countries of SAARC on education, cross-border energy linkages, economic reform, poverty alleviation, polio eradication, climate change, and more.