India to ink services pact with Asean next month: PM

Phnom Penh, Nov 19 (IANS) India Monday said it is ready to ink a free trade agreement on services and investment with the 10−member Asean next month, ahead of a commemorative event in New Delhi to mark the 20th anniversary of its "Look East" policy and 10 years of summit−level partnership.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh informed this to leaders of the Southeast Asian countries at the Asean−India summit in the Cambodian capital.

"I would like to inform Your Excellencies that India is prepared to conclude the Agreement on Trade in Services and Investment Promotion before the Commemorative Summit in Delhi in December," the prime minister said in his address to the summit.

"This will be a strong signal of our deepening economic engagement, and will allow for rapid expansion in trade and investment flows in both directions," he added.

India already has a free trade agreement with the grouping on goods that he said has "served us well". India is now pushing for the agreement on investments and services to make the FTAs into a CECA (Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement).

The prime minister said that concluding the FTA on services and investment in December would be "a strong signal of our deepening economic engagement". It would allow for rapid expansion in trade and investment flows in both directions.

He said both the new agreement would give "additional depth and range to our cooperation".

Commerce Minister Anand Sharma had told journalists Sunday that officials from both sides are finalising the details of the agreement. The negotiators had met Saturday and again Sunday in Phnom Penh to work out the details.

New Delhi will be hosting a Commemorative Summit Dec 20−21 to mark the 20th anniversary of its ties with the bloc and the 10th anniversary of Asean−India Summit−level talks.

The prime minister said both the FTAs would be "a springboard for rapid expansion in our economic relations" and add ""additional depth and range to our cooperation".

Prime Minister Singh also said he was happy to note the "growing engagement" in areas such as defence, maritime security and counter−terrorism.

"I am confident that, given our cultural affinity, physical proximity, shared values, convergent worldviews and similarities in our approaches to the region, our relationship will increasingly become more comprehensive and strategic in nature."

He said India would like to see "the emergence of an open, balanced, inclusive architecture that promotes peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia−Pacific Region".

Emphasising the importance of the regional bloc, Singh also said that India believes that Asean centrality is essential in the evolving regional architecture for peace, stability, development and prosperity.

He said the India−Asean car rally and the Asean sailing expedition of the Indian Naval Ship Sudarshini "highlight the importance and the potential for connecting India and Asean by sea, surface and air links".

The car rally, to be flagged off in Jakarta on Nov 26, will traverse through Asean countries Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar and enter India from Moreh in Imphal on Dec 16.

The car rally will, after traversing 8,000 km, end in Delhi on Dec 20.

INS Sudarshini, a training ship of the Indian Navy, embarked Sep 15 this year on seven−month expedition to most of the modern and ancient ports in nine Asean countries. The expedition is to end on March 26, 2013.

Stressing the importance of increased connectivity with Asean countries, the prime minister said India is holding talks with Asean in working groups for land transport, maritime transport and the Asean Connectivity Coordinating Committee.

India and the Southeast Asian grouping are also building a Trilateral Highway to connect Myanmar, Thailand and India. The roadway is to be completed by 2016 and will help boost road trade in a major way. India is contributing in a major way to its construction.

The Trilateral Highway would connect Moreh (Manipur) in India to Mae Sot in Thailand.

The prime minister said the working groups and the highway are "welcome steps in implementing the vision of India−Asean connectivity."

He also said he is looking forward to extension of the roadway to Vietnam, for which feasibility studies are being conducted.

"Continuing liberalization of our visa regime for Asean countries is also inspired by the same desire to connect our people and expand mutually beneficial economic opportunities," he added.

Stressing the importance of agriculture cooperation between India and the Asean, the prime minister said the launch of a newsletter on agriculture, and the participation of diplomats from Asean countries in an Agri Expo held in Dimapur, Nagaland, over the weekend were very important initiatives.

An India−Asean Business Fair would be held in Delhi in December.