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Dhaka mulls free trade pacts with India, Pak, Sri Lanka

IANS | 4 Aug 2008

Dhaka mulls free trade pacts with India, Pak, Sri Lanka

DHAKA: Bangladesh has decided to sign bilateral free trade agreements (FTA) with three major South Asian trading partners - India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - in view of the failure of multilateral trading arrangements to serve the country’s interests.

The decision was taken at a meeting Sunday with stakeholders and experts at the commerce ministry. Commerce and Education Adviser Hossain Zillur Rahman chaired the meet, a national newspaper said on Monday.

While negotiating with India on the FTA, the issue of transportation and regional connectivity will come up for discussion automatically, former foreign secretary Farooq Sobhan was quoted to have said. He said Dhaka should have its position clear on this.

Although the meeting considered trade data based on research done at home and by the World Bank, it decided to go for further studies, indicating that the process would be slow.

A core group comprising public and private sector representatives will be formed with the chief executive officer of the Bangladesh Foreign Trade Institute, M Ali Taslim, as its chief, to assess probable risks and gains of striking the free trade deals with the neighbouring countries.

"The whole exercise will be accomplished under a public-private partnership so that the interest of the country can be served," said the commerce adviser, who performs ministerial functions in the cartetaker government headed by Chief Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed.

The Bangladesh high commissioners to these three countries will be asked to give their opinions in this regard and contact the host governments to resume negotiations that remain stalled since their beginning in late 2003.

The latest collapse of the World Trade Organisation talks at the level of mini-ministerial conference in Geneva as well as a slow progress in expanding the regional trade under the SAARC Free Trade Area prompted Bangladesh to go for bilateral trading arrangements.

Demands including duty and quota-free access of products of the least developed countries like Bangladesh to markets of developed countries remain unrealised despite their commitments during the Hong Kong trade ministerial meeting in 2005.

"It will also mean boosting of the regional trade through bilateral arrangements," said an official present at the meeting, in reply to the question why Dhaka would now prefer the bilateral FTA.

The meeting also decided to ink similar deals with Nepal and Bhutan in order to justify the objectives of signing FTA with the three major trading nations in the region.

Bangladesh has been suffering balance of payments deficits with India over the years at a range of more than $2 billion. Dhaka also has trade imbalance with Islamabad and Colombo although the overall trade volume in this regard is much lower than that with India.

Issues of service sector, non-tariff barriers and sensitive list, especially how they would be dealt with in the FTA deals, came up for discussion at the meeting which was attended by representatives of the trade bodies and research organisations and officials of relevant government agencies, the newspaper said.

 source: Economic Times