India, Asean to start talks on comprehensive economic deal

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
India and ten South East Asian nations will begin talks for a wide-ranging economic deal on Tuesday that would cut trade and investment barriers, let New Delhi tap the oil and gas resources in countries like Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia and allow free movement of professionals like doctors, engineers and accountants across the region for employment.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is in the capital of Cambodia for the 10th ASEAN-India Summit here, said the region has immense opportunity for business. "Tomorrow, we will participate in the seventh East Asia Summit and launch the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations," Singh said.

This deal would subsume India's free trade agreement (FTA) on goods with Asean as well as four similar FTAs the block has with Singapore, South Korea, Japan and the Australia-New Zealand combine. Once India signs an FTA on services trade and investments with Asean, that too would become part of the larger deal.

India is desperate to reverse its shrinking exports to South East Asia, which together with contracting exports to Europe, pulled down the country's total exports by 8% in the April-September period. Exports to Europe contracted by 12%, while the same to South East Asia declined by 20% in the period.

India is also ready to conclude the proposed deal on services trade with Asean as early as next month before an Asean commemorative summit in Delhi in December. "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," Singh said.

India's finance minister P Chidambaram had recently met his counterparts from Asean and offered the country's resources in helping the ten member group of nations to mobilize domestic savings to build roads, ports and highways. India hopes that infrastructure development in the region will cut physical barriers and boost trade. Besides, greater economic co-operation with the block will facilitate Indian oil and gas explorers to seek licenses for hydrocarbon hunt and set up refineries in the region.

Singh said he supported a master plan for connectivity. New Delhi is talking to Thailand and Myanmar for a trilateral highway. It has been decided to establish connectivity from Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand by 2016, said Singh.

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