Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on services and investments with ASEAN and Nalanda University (Amendment) Bill also on the anvil

As a testimony to the intensity of the relationship that India seeks to have with ASEAN, New Delhi has decided to open a separate mission for this 10-nation bloc that is billed as the growth centre of Asia.

An announcement of an Indian Ambassador to ASEAN is expected to be made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in this capital city of Brunei where he will participate in the 11th ASEAN-India summit on Thursday. Dr. Singh arrived here late on Wednesday afternoon to participate in the ASEAN-India engagement and the 8th East Asia Summit (EAS).

Currently, India’s diplomatic mission in Indonesia handles the ASEAN-related work as the ASEAN Secretariat is located in Jakarta. Official sources said the ASEAN engagement had become very demanding; one that required a full-time mission. This was also a recommendation of the vision statement prepared by an ASEAN-India Eminent Persons Group as per the Plan of Action 2010-15.

The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on services and investments with ASEAN – which has been given its final contours after addressing reservations of some member countries – will not be signed at the meeting as individual governments are still in the process of getting internal approvals. Both External Affairs and Commerce Ministries maintain that it will be signed before the end of the calendar year and operational from July 2014.

India is keen to have the FTA signed at the earliest so that it can tap into the ASEAN market. India-ASEAN trade increased by 37 per cent in 2012 to reach nearly $80 billion, surpassing the target of $70 billion. Once the FTA is in place, two-way trade is expected to touch the $100 billion mark by 2015.

At the EAS, India is expecting to sign inter-governmental agreements with half-a-dozen countries to reinforce the international character of the historic Nalanda University. ``This is the first time such an agreement is being promoted from the EAS platform,’’ official sources pointed out.

While India is the biggest financier of this venture, several countries including China, Singapore and Australia have pledged money for the university. The Nalanda University (Amendment) Bill is before a Parliamentary Standing Committee and provides for having representatives from five EAS countries on the university’s Board. ``We are trying to make it a truly international university; the way it was when it flourished between the 5and 12 centuries,’’ officials said.

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