Thursday, Oct 09, 2003
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THE SECOND INDIA-ASEAN summit in Bali has provided the much-needed thrust and framework for taking the partnership forward. Two broad agreements, for Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and combating terrorism, have been signed. India has also acceded to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Prime Minister Vajpayee went a step further to offer a unilateral `open skies' policy to specified Southeast Asian airlines, which will be free to operate daily flights to the Indian metropolitan centres, outside any bilateral aviation pact. These steps augur well for furthering economic and political cooperation between India and its 10 Southeast Asian neighbours extending from Myanmar to the Philippines. Mr. Vajpayee began his visit to the Indonesian tourist paradise by arriving there a day ahead of schedule. He made full use of the three-day visit to meet all the Heads of State and Government who were there; the list comprised the leaders of not just the 10 ASEAN countries, but also of ASEAN's three East Asian dialogue partners China, Japan and South Korea. This annual summit offers the leaders an excellent forum to exchange views without a structured agenda and in an informal atmosphere. India was invited to this summit only last year, in a clear recognition of its economic and political importance in the region.
India's accession to ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation speaks to a growing closeness with Southeast Asia. But what is significant is the framework agreement aimed at creating a Free Trade Area in 10 years. India, which is set to sign a bilateral agreement on comprehensive economic cooperation with Singapore, has recognised the need to move forward on the regional front through established regional trading arrangements or blocs. Mr. Vajpayee's address at the ASEAN Business Summit struck the right note by focussing on the country's areas of strengths and inviting ASEAN investors to take a fresh look at "India of the 21st Century... [a] country on the move." He has set an ambitious target for India-ASEAN trade: it is to grow from $12.5 billion now to $30 billion in 2007. The agreement to fight terrorism cooperatively has come at a time when the Philippines, Indonesia and even Singapore have felt the impact of international terrorism and look to India for support to meet the challenges on this front. The ASEAN Regional Forum will remain the platform for a security dialogue in the region and the forum includes the U.S. and the European Union.
Starting from 1997, when India began its formal interaction with ASEAN as a full dialogue partner, things have been moving forward, although not at the desired pace. There seems to be a new momentum to India's Look East policy, independent of the equation with the U.S. Since most of the economies of the ASEAN region are intrinsically linked to the U.S. economy and these countries look to Washington for providing a security umbrella, they have found it congenial to move closer to India in the post-Soviet Union era. It is up to New Delhi to maintain this momentum and develop its partnership with ASEAN, which will look for concrete follow-up measures on the agreements signed. The negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement will begin in January 2004, on goods, and take up services in 2005 so that the whole framework is in place by 2007. India is committed to lowering its peak tariffs to East Asian levels by 2005. Meeting such goals will be the test of the relationship and of the Look East policy.
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