By Gamini WARUSHAMANA
Non tariff barriers between countries in the SAARC region is the main obstacle for regional development said the Immediate Past President of the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industries (SAARC CCI) Annisul Huq. The trade gap between regional countries is huge.
This should not be so. In the last 10-12 years we have failed to address trade issues despite months of talks held among the SAARC countries because we failed to change the mindset of the policy makers and bureaucrats, he said.
He was addressing a seminar on Trade Facilitation in South Asia, organised by SAARC CCI in Colombo, last week. We have failed to resolve the visa issue even after discussions with policy makers and bureaucrats for over a decade. Business people are not terrorists. South Asia is a big region where one fifth of the world population live. This negative mindset of policy makers and bureaucrats has obstructed regional development. Countries in the region should resolve bilateral trade issues and take these solutions to a multilateral level. There is a huge potential in the region that is not properly utilised, Huq said.
He said that progress made by SAARC was slow. Intra-regional trade is just five percent of world trade. Exports from all eight countries in the region is two percent of global exports. The total tourism revenue earned by all eight countries is less than the tourism revenue of Malaysia. This is why we are crying over the years. All issues we discuss at SAARC CCI will bring results in the long run, he said.
Delivering the keynote address, Minister of External Affairs Prof. G. L. Peiris said that to overcome these issues in regional trade promotion, collective thoughts of member countries in implementation are essential. “The Government recently called all Sri Lankan diplomats from abroad and told them that they should engage in the promotion of trade, investment, business and tourism as a priority. Fundamental transformation has not taken place in our diplomatic missions over a long period.
Trade is an important aspect in diplomatic relations. SAARC is not a political organisation and it has huge economic and business tasks. Within the EU, trade led to the formation of a political union. In all regions there are initiatives to strengthen intra-regional trade. For instance African countries have come to an agreement to promote their tea in the region. Agreements of this type negatively affect us and we are loosing our traditional markets. We too should explore avenues to gradually increase intra-regional trade. Intra-regional trade in SAARC is only five percent compared to 55 percent in the EU, 52 percent in NAFTA, 32 percent in Asia Pacific region and 22 percent in ASEAN”, Prof. Peiris said.
Prof. Peiris said that this setback in intra-regional trade cannot be accepted and justified. Arguments that all SAARC countries are producing same commodities and commonality in goods and services were wrong. The situation has changed. For instance several years ago, Colombo roads were dominated by Japanese and European cars, but today there are a large number of Indian cars. Maldives or India are not rivals to Sri Lanka in tourism and SAARC countries can offer attractive combined packages for tourists and increase tourist arrivals.