India-ASEAN to hold talks on free trade pact

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India and Southeast Asian nations are set to engage each other in detailed negotiations tomorrow in Singapore, to seal a free trade pact before their top leaders meet for summit-level talks later this week. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is leading the high-level Indian delegation for the top summit, is set for wide ranging discussions with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) aimed at sorting out FTA issues to bolster two-way trade, which crossed USD 30 billion in 2006-07.

Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath will hold consultations a day in advance with his counterparts from Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Brunei on New Delhi’s offers on market access to ASEAN on agriculture products.

Leaders of ASEAN, meeting this week for their annual summit, are due to sign a blueprint for creating a vast single market and production base covering about 570 million people, by 2015.

After 40 years of its formation and more than two years of intense negotiations, ASEAN is on the verge of transforming itself into a more effective and rules-based organisation when its leaders ink the historic Asean Charter at their annual summit opening here this week.

The path to the new Asean Charter was not without its problems, senior ASEAN officials said.

“The different national interests of the 10 different countries had to be reconciled,” said ambassador-at large Professor Tommy Koh, a member of a group of senior ASEAN officials responsible for drafting the charter.

“There were naturally some moments of drama and tension caused partly due to differences of substance and partly due to clashes of personalities,” he said, adding that one of the most contentious issues was whether to set up a human rights body and the form it should take.

“That was a major disagreement,” he said, without elaborating.

– Bengaluru Bureau

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