NEW DELHI: Twenty years of ASEAN-India ties received a boost in New Delhi on Thursday with the announcement that the much-awaited ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has been concluded, after discussions on the investment and services chapters were completed.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is in New Delhi for the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit, hopes the agreement can be signed expeditiously and its provisions implemented.
Indian Prime Minister and host Manmohan Singh, speaking at the opening of the 20th anniversary summit, said the FTA's conclusion will boost trade and economic ties between both sides, especially when ASEAN-India trade has gone up by ten times over the past few years.
He also gave his full support to ASEAN's vision of an economic community by 2015 and the region's connectivity masterplan.
Dr Singh hopes more could be done to intensify consultations in the political and security arenas of ASEAN, with the aim of evolving a transparent and inclusive regional architecture.
"We see our partnership with 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," said Dr Singh.
"We have institutionalized annual summits; many of our sectoral dialogues have been elevated into ministerial consultations; and nearly 25 mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation between us cover virtually every field of human endeavour."
Joining ASEAN leaders in congratulating Dr Singh, Mr Lee said the ASEAN-India FTA is now a comprehensive agreement in line with the other ASEAN Plus One FTAs.
He also welcomed India's full participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is a mega FTA which ASEAN is working with dialogue partners. The RCEP talks were launched at the recent ASEAN Summit in Cambodia.
Mr Lee also urged ASEAN and India to expand into new areas of cooperation.
He noted the ASEAN-India Eminent Persons Group had proposed many good ideas in skills development, vocational education and counter-terrorism and that ASEAN should pursue them vigorously.
"From ASEAN's point of view, the relationship has become more important also because we need to strengthen ties with India, with India's dramatic progress. Also, over the past 20 years, the regional architecture has evolved significantly," said Mr Lee.
"ASEAN is a logical fulcrum for powers to engage Southeast Asia and one another. Strong ties with ASEAN and India will greatly help ASEAN to continue to play its role and therefore ASEAN welcomes India's continued involvement and hopes to build on progress over the past 20 years."
Mr Lee noted that relations have flourished since India became ASEAN's Sectoral Dialogue Partner in 1992.
Economic relations have also blossomed, with ASEAN-India total trade rising more than 25 times between 1993 and 2011.
Mr Lee said Dr Singh has been instrumental in strengthening India-ASEAN relations, and closer India-ASEAN relations are more important today to both sides.
From ASEAN's point of view, it has become more important to strengthen ties with India because of the country's dramatic progress.
Turning to the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), Mr Lee said both sides are close to completing the second CECA Review.
This will expand Singapore-India economic cooperation even more.
Dr Singh also urged ASEAN and India to aim for the milestone of US$200 billion in two-way trade.
He urged the leaders to also build on commendable initiatives, like the annual India-ASEAN Business Fair and Conclave, and energise the Business Council.
Linkages between small and medium enterprises, which are central to the economies, should be promoted, said Dr Singh.
At the close of the commemorative summit, the leaders adopted the Vision Statement on ASEAN-India ties, which among several things enhances the links between both sides to the level of a strategic partnership.
On Thursday, Mr Lee also met several leading industrialists in the fast-growing Gurgaon city in Haryana state.
Among them was the chairman of Bharti Airtel, Sunil Mittal.
Both discussed Airtel's investment in the region and also the company's close tie-ups with Singapore's SingTel.
A spokesman for Airtel said it is tapping the experience of SingTel in the 4G mobile network.
Airtel is the world's fourth largest mobile operator.
Mr Lee also had a briefing on developments in the Haryana state, which is one of the fastest-growing regions in India.
From 2005 to 2011, Haryana recorded an average growth rate of 9.4 per cent.
He also met its Chief Minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, and several top industrialists over lunch.
In the evening, Indian President Pranab Mukerjee hosted the ASEAN leaders to a banquet at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The leaders were also entertained to several cultural items from ASEAN member countries and India.
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