Calls conclusion of negotiations on FTA a milestone

After tying up the loose ends of a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) just before the start of the first-ever India-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit on Indian soil on Thursday, New Delhi sought a deeper engagement with the 10-country bloc in political and security-related areas.

Speaking at the plenary session here, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed the conclusion of negotiations on an FTA that encompassed investment and services besides goods (which was inked in 2009) a “valuable milestone,” but felt the upgrade of India’s dialogue partner status to strategic partnership should lead to deeper engagements in the political and economic spheres.

Though political dialogue had grown, consultations on regional forums intensified and defence and counter-terrorism cooperation expanded, “I feel we should intensify our political and security consultations, including in regional forums such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus. We should work together more purposefully for the evolution of an open, balanced, inclusive and transparent regional architecture. The growing role and responsibilities of the ASEAN and India in global affairs also call for increased consultation on a broader range of international developments.”

Another major area flagged by the Prime Minister was translating intentions about air, land and maritime connectivity into actual performances. As these infrastructure projects demanded enormous funds, both sides should think of innovative ways of financing and executing them, he pointed out. India was putting a great deal of emphasis on quick implementation of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and its extension to Laos and Cambodia. It also planned to launch a second route that would run from India through Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia to Vietnam.

With improved connectivity in due course, Dr. Singh wanted both sides to set their sights higher on the trade front. Optimistic of achieving the target of $100 billion by 2015, he wanted India and the ASEAN to aim for the milestone of $200 billion 10 years from now.

Leaders of some countries, especially Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tang Dun, touched on the South China Sea dispute but India, steering clear of the issue, emphasised the centrality of the maritime domain in the closer security ties it was seeking with the ASEAN.

“As maritime nations, India and the ASEAN should intensify their engagement for maritime security and safety, for freedom of navigation and for peaceful settlement of maritime disputes in accordance with international law. We should also foster regional cooperation to counter piracy and respond to natural disasters,’’ Dr. Singh said.

With nine Prime Ministers and Presidents lauding India’s Look East Policy, Dr. Singh responded by terming India’s engagement with Southeast Asia unmatched.

“We see our partnership with the ASEAN not merely as a reaffirmation of ties with neighbouring countries or as an instrument of economic development, but also as an integral part of our vision of a stable, secure and prosperous Asia and its surrounding Indian Ocean and Pacific regions,” he said.

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