It's time for policymakers to boost regional cooperation

Topics SAARC | ASEAN | India Foreign Policy

It is now almost nine months since China first reported a cluster of cases of unknown type of pneumonia. The disease, subsequently named SARS-CoV-2 (called Covid-19), has spread all over the world affecting over 32 million people and killing a little less than a million people so far. During this period, most countries, in varying degrees, imposed lockdowns and later relaxed them. Almost all governments took many initiatives to keep the goods moving.

Professor Prabir De, head of ASEAN-India Centre (AIC) and Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), New Delhi, has studied various trade facilitation measures taken by the policymakers and administrators in South and South West Asia (SSWA). His working paper is published by the Asia-Pacific Research and Training Network on Trade (ARTNeT), an open regional network of research and academic institutions specialising in international trade policy and facilitation issues.

The paper is a useful compilation of most of the steps taken by India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey to facilitate cross-border trade during the full or partial lockdown phases by way of simplification of Customs procedures and expedited clearances, digital trade facilitation, transport, logistics and transit facilitations, trade finance facilitation, business facilitation, support for small and medium enterprises, and other sundry measures.

Professor De identifies several common good practices in SSWA that helped cope with the challenges. These include establishment of trade information portals to aid transparency and ease of trade by explaining procedures, quicker Customs clearance and release of goods essential for combating the spread of the pandemic, simplification of export and import procedures, accepting documents through digital mode, exemption of customs duties on import of essential goods and other measures such as 24/7 help desk, relaxation in demurrage, exemption of interest, and postponement in debt servicing, etc.
Professor De recommends greater scope of regional cooperation among the countries in the region, especially in a protracted recession. He refers to the re-opening of borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iran as remarkable examples of pragmatic measures to encourage easier flow of cross-border trade during the pandemic. Regional cooperation can help in reducing overlaps of trade facilitation measures and sharing good practices. SAARC leaders have shown such regional cooperation with the formation of the SAARC Covid-19 Fund. Important lessons from other regions, such as the European Union, also could be applied in the SSWA region, he says.

Going forward, a cross-border regional protocol would help strengthen the preparedness for future pandemics or similar disasters. This protocol could consider trade and transport-related actions such as coordinated measures for enhanced controls of trucks and vehicles carrying goods, surveillance systems for monitoring the health of transport crew and enabling contact tracing, electronic tracking of goods and vehicles, and digital freight corridors, among others, says Professor De.

The working paper talks of opportunities for fruitful regional collaboration in trade finance, cross-border e-commerce, and innovative application of emerging technologies, among others. In particular, trade facilitation for e-commerce, where some SSWA countries have made little or no progress, should be urgently taken up. At the same time, regional coordination on issues related to trade and transport facilitation could also be crucial to minimise the economic damage to the region, it says.

Our policymakers can take note and try to enhance regional cooperation with our neighbours. />

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