Pak-Bangla Trade needs Diversity to Move Forward – Dr Ashfaq Hassan Suggests “South Asian Economic Block” to Replace SAARC

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Islamabad; 12 Aug 2021 – Former Special Secretary Finance Pakistan, Dr. Ashfaq Hasan Khan has suggested alternative of SAARC  i.e., establishing South Asian Economic Block, where the decisions must be based on consensus rather than being dictated by the powerful member such as India.

He suggested this in a webinar organized by Islamabad based think tank “Pakistan House” on the subject of “Sharing Future Economic Progress: Potential Avenues for Collaborations between Pakistan and Bangladesh”.

Director General Pakistan House Muhammad Athar Javed shared that the webinar is the continuation of previous webinar, which was on the Economic Cooperation between Pakistan and Bangladesh. The sole objective of the latest webinar is to explore opportunities for Pakistan-Bangladesh relations and put forward recommendations.

Dr Ashfaq Hassan, while participating as keynote speaker said that SAARC is no more a vibrant and significant regional organization, that does not mean that one-fifth population of the world should be deprived of regional connectivity. It is also imperative to note down the role of China in the regional connectivity. China’s Belt Road Initiative has established a regional connectivity network that can be beneficial for regional cooperation. Pakistan, Bangladesh along with China’s expertise and resources can utilize this network for developing a new regional bloc.

“Volume of Pak-Bangla trade is fluctuating. The trade volume has been in the favor of Pakistan. Overall trade with Bangladesh amounts to 1% only remaining the same for years. There are many prospects to collaborate in trade areas but there are certain problems that bar the countries from establishing strong trade ties. Most importantly, both produce more or less the same products e.g., cotton oriented. The prospects for economic development will remain stagnant if both countries do not move towards diversifying their trade.” He concluded.

Mr. Shibly Abdullah, Accounting and Business Studies Charles Sturt University Australia said that Pak-Bangla FTA could not be processed. Bangladesh is facing trouble of rising prices of yarn import for six months. Pakistan is one of the largest producers of yarn which can be helpful . Pak-Bangla economies can be complementary to each other rather competitive in the industry of jute, leather, and textile etc. Another untapped area is the scenic natural beauty of both sides. Governments can prepare attractive tourism packages to engage people along with economic activities. PM Bangladesh invites Pakistani businessmen from IT and several other fields to help in bridging the gaps.

Digital platforms are opening new doors and digital transformation can be very beneficial for both countries in generating global GDP. Another good news is BRI which is going to connect Pakistan and Bangladesh with several other States. We see discussions underway regarding collaboration and potential areas including sports and surgical goods, pharmaceutical etc. Bangladesh’ strategic vision is to attract new capital to enhance the activities in engineering, renewable energy sector etc. Another untapped industry is of entertainment.

Dr. Reza Kibria, Economist from Dhaka shared that there is lack of communication that needs to be improved and easy travel policies should be promoted. There is less interaction between the top business communities. There is no direct flight, no direct trade from Chittagong to Karachi, this need to be addressed. Bangladesh can become a gateway to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). South Asia is the region of future connectivity in South and Southeast Asia. Bangladesh is playing a leading role in the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectorial Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) which groups together Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, and Bhutan in a forum for multilateral cooperation. Pakistan is gateway to Central Asia. To flourish the economy of Bangladesh there should be a collaboration with India and Pakistan, India is a big economy, so it is not possible for Bangladesh to weaken its relationship with any country.

Dr. Nisar Ahmed, Associate Professor, Department of economics and Finance, Sultan Qaboos University, Oman said that digital connectivity is becoming the new reality of the global village. Case in point here is COVID-19, which began in one small area but has now become a global problem. The pandemic compelled the world to move towards digital connectivity and digitalize many sectors. Communication is imperative to bridge the existing gaps between both governments and people. The foundation of economy of a country is based on connectivity and communication. Digital connectivity offers many opportunities to overcome the problem of communication and connectivity between Pakistan and Bangladesh. Both should work together to promote e-commerce and digital entrepreneurship that can provide an impetus to economic growth.

Dr. Amjed Naveed, Department of Economics, University of Arhus, Denmark noted that major areas for sustainable development between Pakistan and Bangladesh include travel and tourism industry with special focus to air transportation. Digital collaboration is another area which can provide space for both States to develop strong bilateral ties. The role of Chambers of Commerce is also very crucial. They can arrange multiple conferences in order to push the trade and economic ties, generating employment opportunities on both sides.

Muhammad Athar Javed referred to Joint Economic Commission that is inactive since long. He concluded the webinar on his note that the two countries are interested in moving together to achieve all relevant Sustainable Development Goals, including poverty alleviation and ensuring good health, quality education, and gender equality, in a timely fashion.

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