NEW DELHI: Seven countries of South Asia on Wednesday agreed to look at ways and means to keep up trade flows within the region in a bid to counter the adverse impact that the covid-19 pandemic will have on regional commerce, a statement from the Indian foreign ministry said.
Trade and commerce officials of Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka besides India held talks over a video link to take stock of the situation following the outbreak of the pandemic that has caused countries to close borders, brought commercial passenger travel to a standstill, caused oil prices to crash and stock markets to plummet.
Pakistan was the notable absentee from Wednesday’s meet, the Indian statement said of the event which was a followup to a video conference among the heads of governments from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) last month. At the heads of government event too, Pakistan was represented by an official – given tensions with India over the decades old dispute over Kashmir.
“It was recognized that the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have a considerable adverse impact on trade in the SAARC region. In order for the countries to deal with the situation, it was stressed that new ways and means be jointly identified to sustain and expand the intra-regional trade until the normal trade channels are fully restored," the statement said.
“The imperative need to maintain essential trade within the SAARC region was viewed as an important thrust area for favourable consideration," it said.
Some specific steps addressed during the video conference meet included “facilitation of trade through pragmatic solutions such as provisional clearance of imports at preferential duty with suitable conditions, provisional acceptance of digitally signed certificates of origin, acceptance of scanned copies of documents for clearance of imports by customs and release of payments by banks, resolving issues being faced for exports/imports at land customs stations on land border," the statement said.
“The impact of health issues such as Covid-19 on regional trade and possible measures to mitigate it were seen as a new focus area for discussion in the larger framework of trade facilitation in the SAARC region. The need to enhance the quantum of intra SAARC trade was also highlighted," the Indian statement said.
Meanwhile, a Pakistan foreign office statement made available by its high commission in New Delhi said Islamabad chose to stay away from Wednesday’s meet since the SAARC Secretariat was not part of it.
“Being a founding member, Pakistan believed that SAARC provides an important platform for regional cooperation," the Pakistan statement said.
“The role of the Secretariat assumes further salience in emergency situations such as the Covid-19 pandemic, and its wider social and economic fall-out. As in the case of other regional and international organizations, SAARC Secretariat also provides the requisite convening platform, institutional framework and support structure for essential coordination and follow-up," it said.
“Activities such as today’s Trade Officials’ Video-Conference could only be effective if spearheaded by the SAARC Secretariat. Since the SAARC Secretariat was not part of today’s Video-Conference, Pakistan chose not to participate," the Pakistani statement added.
Created in the mid 1980s, SAARC has little to show for itself given that progress on issues like regional integration and connectivity has been slow mainly due to infighting between India and Pakistan. Pakistan was to host a summit of SAARC leaders in 2016 but India, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh pulled out citing Pakistan’s support to terrorism as not conducive for regional cooperation. No summit of SAARC has been held since.