Pakistan on Wednesday boycotted a video conference of trade officials from the SAARC countries, saying such meetings could only be effective if spearheaded by the group's secretariat instead of India.
The conference was convened to discuss the impact of coronavirus in the region and how the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) forum could come up with a common strategy.
In the virtual conference, the trade officials broadly agreed to identify new ways to "sustain and expand" the intra-regional trade to offset the huge economic cost of the coronavirus pandemic.
The deliberations took place as a follow up to an India-initiated video conference of SAARC leaders on March 15. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had suggested in the conference that the member nations of the bloc should come together to jointly fight the pandemic.
Shortly after the conference, Pakistan's Foreign Office in a statement said, "Activities such as today's Trade Officials' Video-Conference could only be effective if spearheaded by the SAARC Secretariat. Since the SAARC Secretariat was not part of today's Video-Conference, Pakistan chose not to participate."
In order for the SAARC process to move forward, the SAARC Secretariat must be enabled to play its due role in any event or activity being organised under its auspices, the statement said.
"The role of the secretariat assumes further salience in emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and its wider social and economic fallout," the Foreign Office said.
The statement said as, in the case of other regional and international organisations, the SAARC secretariat also provides the requisite convening platform, institutional framework and support structure for essential coordination and follow-up.
Being a founding member, Pakistan believed that SAARC provides an important platform for regional cooperation, the Foreign Office said, adding that at a time when the region was facing unprecedented challenges, all the available institutional frameworks must be optimally utilised.
The SAARC is a grouping comprising Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
All the SAARC member nations are reeling under adverse social and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier, India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in a statement said, "In order for the countries to deal with the situation, it was stressed that new ways and means be jointly identified to sustain and expand the intra-regional trade until the normal trade channels are fully restored."
It said the imperative need to maintain essential trade within the SAARC region was viewed as an important thrust area for favourable consideration.
The MEA said the impact of COVID-19 on regional trade and possible measures to mitigate it was seen as a new focus area for discussion in the larger framework of trade facilitation in the SAARC region.