Bangladesh can benefit more if it becomes part of the Southeast Asian nations' organisation – Asean, given that Saarc is a case of failure and Asean has already been a very successful regional cooperation model.
Thanks to a convenient geographical location, Bangladesh is the door to connect South Asia to the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Speakers made the observation at a webinar titled "Importance of Regional Cooperation in Post-Covid Recovery" organised by the Bangladesh Philippines Chamber of Commerce & Industry (BPCCI) on Saturday.
"Bangladesh has a dream to be part of Asean but we do not know when that will come true," said Abul Kasem Khan, chairman of Business Initiative Leading Development (BUILD).
Everyone must agree Saarc has been a failure in terms of regional cooperation. Trade happening among Saarc nations is below 5% compared to that among the members of other regional bodies, he added.
He further said, "Historically, Chattogram is well-connected to the Far East, and being a port city, it has been contributing a lot to trade between Southeast Asia and South Asia."
Bangladesh is also located in between two economic giants – India and China – while one is emerging and the other has already emerged. Realising the importance of this region, Japanese are investing in numerous Bay of Bengal projects, Kasem maintained.
Bangladesh is also in a good position to become a trans-coast regional hub as it has a large workforce along with the demographic dividend. By 2050, it will become the fastest-growing economy, surpassing Thailand and Malaysia.
Meanwhile, Asean will be the fourth-largest market by 2030 following the United States, China and European Union, he also said.
Southeast Asian countries could benefit from it because Asean has a major foreign direct investor like Singapore, Abul Kasem said, adding Bangladesh may become an observer at Asean where there are a lot of opportunities for both Bangladesh and the organisation.
However, the whole world is going through a shock currently as lots of external factors are dictating economies of various countries, including Bangladesh, said Kasem, also a former president Dhaka of Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
BPCCI President Akber Al Hakim said, according to the World Trade Organisation, the global trade will decline by 9.2% this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic although it has been projected to grow by 7.2% in 2021.
Citing a recent Unctad report, Akber Hakim said there was a 19% drop in the global trade in the second quarter of 2020. The drop was approximately 5% in the third quarter and is forecast to be 3% in the fourth and last quarter, he added.
The RMG sector in the country has taken a big hit from the Covid-19 pandemic, he mentioned, adding that orders worth billions of dollars were cancelled, but not all of those have come back.
The BPCCI president hoped that regional cooperation could usher in a significant improvement in trade investment.
By maintaining a positive GDP growth, Bangladesh is doing fairly well during the ongoing pandemic situation, he added.
Professor Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), said, "No development is a linear one. We have done well till now.
"But there is no guarantee that we'll be able to retain the current development trend, if we are not smart enough to overcome the challenges and utilise the opportunities."
In this situation, regional cooperation will open up a new window of opportunities, he added.
To attract foreign investment, Bangladesh should take initiatives to make sure trade connectivity, investment connectivity, logistic connectivity, transport connectivity and people to people connectivity with its neighbouring countries.
The special economic zones will bring in new opportunities, he hoped, observing that Asian countries have been doing better during the pandemic compared to other countries.
Pointing at that every country, regardless of the less developed and the developed ones, has been affected by the pandemic, Vicente Vivencio T Bandillo, Philippines ambassador in Dhaka, said everyone needs cooperation among themselves to survive in the new normal.
Rupali Haque Chowdhury, president of the Foreign Investors' Chamber of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), observed that the Bangladesh government is trying to attract more FDI by establishing a good number of economic zones in the country.
She stressed the need for proper implementation of the projects, taking up appropriate policy and budgetary measures, and ensuring policy consistency to attain the goal.