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29 Aug 2008

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Asean broadens trade ties in Asia Pacific
FTA with India to be signed in December
EU deal remains a challenge

The 10-nation Asean nations has concluded a deal for free trade in goods with India, the bloc’s seventh-largest trading partner, AFP reported Thursday.

Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang and India’s Minister for Commerce and Industry Kamal Nath announced the deal, covering billions of dollars in trade, at a news conference during Asean meetings in Singapore.

Senior officials agreed on the pact earlier this month. It is to be signed at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean’s) Bangkok summit in December.

Nath expressed ‘’deep satisfaction’’ at the conclusion of the deal, which followed difficult negotiations.

‘’This is an important milestone for our region,’’ he said.

The agreement, covering more than 1.5 billion people, brings Asean a step closer to completing the bloc’s trade ties with all its key Asia-Pacific trading partners.

After India, the only remaining deal to be finalised is with Australia and New Zealand. Ministers say that deal is nearly completed.

Asean is seeking to strengthen regional trade links after the so-called Doha Round of global trade talks broke down in July because of a dispute between India and the United States over agricultural tariffs.

Total trade between the 10-member Asean and India amounted to 37 billion US dollars in 2007, up 29 percent from the previous year.

India is seventh on the list of Asean’s biggest trading partners, trailing Australia, South Korea, China and others, according to Asean figures.

The agreement covering trade in goods but not services between the Asean states and India was supposed to have been concluded last year.

Meanwhile, Asean’s chief described the proposed free trade agreement between Asean and the European Union as "one of the most challenging" Asean is negotiating.

Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said his 10-member bloc and the EU had agreed on a schedule for discussions, but were having problems making headway due to the complexity of the talks.

"They are exploring possibilities on various sectors with various approaches but because of the diversity on both sides, the two sides are working very, very hard trying to find some common ground to move forward," he said.

"I think with the EU, it is probably one of the most challenging agreements that we are negotiating," he told a news conference.

Surin did not elaborate on the difficulties, but diplomats who asked not to be named have said the fact that military-ruled Myanmar is a member of Asean could complicate the negotiations.

They said little progress has been made since Asean and the EU agreed to launch free trade talks in May 2007.

Western countries including EU member states have hit out at Myanmar's junta for its treatment of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and alleged widespread human rights abuses against pro-democracy activists.

Asean aims to achieve a single market and manufacturing base by 2015 to raise its profile in the face of competition from China and India. The bloc already has cut to between zero and five percent tariffs on 90 percent of goods traded between its diverse members.

Also Asean said it had concluded talks with Australia and New Zealand on a comprehensive free trade deal, they said in a statement Thursday.

The announcement came during annual talks by economic ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

“The ministers welcomed the conclusion of the negotiations between Asean, Australia and New Zealand’’ for the free trade agreements, a joint statement said.

The comprehensive agreement covered trade in goods and services, investment, financial services, telecoms, electronic commerce, movement of natural persons, intellectual property, competition policy and economic cooperation, it said.

Talks began in March 2005, with Asean, Australia and New Zealand hoping to sign the deal in December.




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