As many as nine Presidents and Prime Ministers from 10 Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) will attend the commemorative summit to be held here on December 20 and 21. This is the first time so many leaders from South East Asia will gather in the national capital for an India-specific event.

So far, all India-ASEAN summits were held on the sidelines of the summit proper, which means always in an ASEAN country. This is the first time India will play the host and many of the leaders are putting in a special effort to be present at the summit with one head of a government expected to land just two hours before the meet opens.

The highlight is expected to be a formal declaration of the conclusion of negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) in services and investments, as promised by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of last month’s ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh. A vision document, based on a patchy eminent persons group report, will also be released.

If the formal flagging down on Friday of a car rally that traversed most ASEAN states signifies the theme of connectivity that is on top of the India-ASEAN agenda, the other linkages with the South East Asian countries in terms of culture, way of life and civilisational values are already on display.

The Prime Minister will utilise the presence of almost the entire top ASEAN leadership to hold bilateral talks with those he couldn’t meet in Phnom Penh. These include leaders from Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Last month, Dr. Singh met the leaders from Singapore, Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia and Thailand in Phnom Penh.

The summit acquires importance because of India’s impending integration into the ASEAN matrix through a land route by 2015.

Leaders are already looking beyond this India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway with plans to extend it to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

India is also building an alternate route into the Northeast via another ASEAN member, Myanmar, and this maritime-cum-road route is expected to be operational by 2017.

On the economic front, a comprehensive FTA won’t be the end of the story. India will immediately join negotiations for a pact — Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — covering 16 countries (the 10 ASEAN members in addition to its six Asian dialogue partners) which may take three years to finalise. In addition, having inked FTAs with Singapore and Malaysia, India is now in talks for similar pacts with Indonesia and Thailand.

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