New Delhi: India on Friday called for faster economic integration in South Asia and underlined that costs of not doing business with each other in the region will only increase if opportunities for intra-regional trade are not harnessed.

"We should strengthen economic links while dealing with politics in the best way we can," National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon said while inaugurating the third edition of the Asian Relations Conference on "Transforming South Asia: Imperatives for action" at Sapru House.

Menon pointed out that contrary to "the traditional narrative of pessimism," intra-SAARC trade has doubled in the past five years and underlined huge opportunities for transformation of the region.

"The costs of not doing business with each other have risen. There is now a much wider realisation of the costs," said Menon.

Admitting that there are complex political problems between some South Asian countries, a veiled reference to the accident-prone India-Pakistan relationship, Menon suggested that South Asian countries should focus on economics first and tackle political issues in an incremental fashion.

Politics has lagged behind economics in the region, he said.

Over 30 scholars and experts are participating in the two-day conference, which has been organised by the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and the Association of Asian Scholars.

Sudhir T. Devare, director general of the ICWA, underlined the need for greater regional integration. "Regional integration is a trend witnessed in other parts of the world. It's relatively slow in South Asia, but there is a huge opportunity," he said.

The time for action is opportune and propitious, he stressed.

Participating in a session on commonalities and convergences in South Asia, scholars and experts from South Asian countries, that included a number of past and serving envoys, talked about the imperative and timeliness of regional integration and suggested various initiatives to help achieve this goal.

The global economic downturn and the eurozone recession has made the imperative for greater intra-regional trade all the more urgent, said Sartaz Aziz, Pakistan's former finance and foreign minister. Regional cooperation must extend beyond trade to energy, water and monetary issues, he said. He also pitched for greater people-to-people contacts, freer travel and a greater role of media in "changing mindsets in the region".

"South Asia stands on a threshold of a tremendous positive transformation. Regional cooperation is the best way to prevent conflicts and promote economic cooperation," said Shambhu Ram Simkhada, a former ambassador of Nepal to India.

The two-day seminar will also explore how to deal collectively with non-traditional security issues like energy, environment and global commons.

It will culminate in a blueprint for action to facilitate greater regional integration. Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed will deliver the valedictory address on March 10.

(Agencies)