Mindful of the delays, the two-day BIMSTEC Summit concluded in this Myanmar capital Tuesday with the leaders now setting a year-end deadline for a free trade pact among the seven-nation grouping.
In a declaration, the leaders, including Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, directed the negotiating committee to expedite work for concluding the Agreement on Trade in Goods by the end of 2014.
In 2004, the finance and trade ministers of the BIMSTEC countries had agreed to establish a free trade area by June 2012. A few years later, the deadline was advanced to June 2010.
But differences over issues such as tariff lines and quantum of concessions have kept the proposed pact from being inked.
The agreement, when signed, will lead to reduced tariff on commerce among the member countries as also liberalise trade in goods, services and investment.
Addressing the summit earlier, Manmohan Singh said an early conclusion of the trade pact will help member nations - which together account for 20 percent of the global population and $2.5 trillion in GDP - realise the full potential of cooperation.
"Trade and economic cooperation should figure high on our list of priorities," the prime minister told the summit of BIMSTEC that comprises India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka.
"We should aim for an early conclusion of the BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement for trade in goods and also extend it to investment and services," Manmohan Singh added.
"Most of us here are connected with each other through one or more regional economic arrangements and it should not be difficult for us to conclude one for BIMSTEC."
The grouping comprises India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.
The declaration also said the trade committee must continue its efforts for early finalization of the agreement on services and investments, besides the pacts on settlements of disputes and assistance in customs matters.
Sri Lankan diplomat Sumith Nakandala, a former deputy high commissioner to India, was named the first secretary general of BIMSTEC, which will have its permanent secretariat in Dhaka.
The secretariat will function from May.
The declaration expressed satisfaction over the close cooperation among the security agencies of member countries and called for early conclusion of a convention among them on combating international crime.
The declaration also called for cooperation in areas such as agriculture, fisheries, horticulture, tourism, disaster management, climate change, healthcare, people-to-people exchange and poverty reduction.
(Arvind Padmanabhan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)