Bilateral trade talks falter after enthusiastic starts

NewAge, Dhaka

6 October 2004

Bilateral trade talks falter after enthusiastic starts

KHAWAZA MAIN UDDIN

The BNP-led four-party alliance government held talks for bilateral trade deals or regional trade blocs with a number of countries in addition to joining the current global trade negotiations.

Bangladesh strengthened its position, to some extent, as the leader of the least developed countries in the World Trade Organisation amid slow pace and complicated process of the multilateral regime, claimed people close to the negotiations.

They said Dhaka’s major success in the WTO is that Bangladesh, a key actor in the LDC group, could stand its grounds in negotiations with developed countries.

The demands of the LDC ministerial in Dhaka, which resulted in the Dhaka Declaration before the Cancun ministerial, were iterated in the LDC ministerial meet in Dakar, Senegal, which would guide LDC negotiation in future.

While Bangladesh lacks in the strength to successfully conduct international trade negotiations, as was the case with the WTO, the BNP-led government failed to properly pursue economic diplomacy, and to iron out the ministries of commerce and foreign affairs to facilitate trade negotiations adequately.

The commerce ministry proposal to send technically-sound officials to Bangladeshs mission in Geneva was thwarted by the foreign ministry, which was said to be apprehensive of losing control over a diplomatic mission.

The government started out with a businessman, Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury, as the commerce minister a capable representation. But Khosrus replacement with Altaf Hossain Chowdhury has apparently left Bangladesh in the hand of an apprentice who, it is feared, might prove to be ineffectual in international trade negotiations.

In such a situation, Bangladesh is yet to make any clear headway in its bilateral talks in free trade agreements with India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well as trade and investment framework agreement with the United States.

After enthusiastic starts and back-to-back talks, initiatives have faltered, rather unprepared, to cope with the garment quota expiry on the US market the phase-out of multi-fibre arrangement.

In this context, most members of the current coalition cabinet appeared lukewarm on bilateral trade agreements although they formally agreed to solidify commitment to multilateralism and regionalism, considered a natural advantage for small countries such as Bangladesh.

Despite all good intentions to move ahead, Bangladesh has become a victim of the circumstances in the South Asian Free Trade Area because of non-cooperation of two key players of the region India and Pakistan for their internal rivalry.

Dhaka signed another free trade agreement with the members of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, which comprises Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan.

But Bangladesh delayed the signing when it failed to exact a guarantee for future customs losses.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia attended the first-ever summit of the grouping, earlier known as BIMST-EC (Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Co-operation), in July.

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