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India, ASEAN upgrade ties to strategic plane, seal pact on FTA in investments (Roundup)

New Delhi,Defence/Security,Diplomacy,Business/Economy, Thu, 20 Dec 2012 IANS

New Delhi, Dec 20 (IANS) Unveiling the vision of a resurgent and integrated Asia, India and the 10-nation ASEAN Thursday declared the conclusion of negotiations on a FTA in services and investments and upgraded their ties to a strategic partnership that includes closer cooperation in political, economic and security areas.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held wide-ranging talks with leaders of 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that included intensification of trade and investments, closer security cooperation and enhanced physical and cultural connectivity.

"We declare that the ASEAN-India partnership stands elevated to a strategic partnership," said the vision document which was unanimously adopted by the leaders of India and ASEAN countries at the end of the plenary session of the India-ASEAN commemorative summit.

The leaders agreed to work towards "the full, effective and timely implementation of the ASEAN-India dialogue relations across the whole spectrum of political and security, economic, social and development cooperation."

Placing the strategic partnership in context, Manmohan Singh said: "This is a time of great flux and transition, with several unsettled questions and unresolved issues in our region. Our responsibility to work for peace has increased and become more urgent."

"Our shared values, convergent world views and similarities in approaches to the region should help us make the India-ASEAN relationship more comprehensive and elevate it to a Strategic Partnership for the next decade and beyond."

The focus was clearly on scaling up economic ties to new heights, with the leaders airing their collective confidence to achieve $100 billion bilateral trade by 2015. Currently, trade between India and ASEAN is around $80 billion.

The showpiece of the summit was the formal declaration of the successful conclusion of negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement in services and investments.

Addressing the plenary of the Commemorative Summit here, Manmohan Singh said: "It gives me great pleasure, therefore, to see that our Commemorative Summit today coincides with the conclusion of negotiations for the FTA in Services and Investments."

The prime minister said the FTA "represents a valuable milestone in our relationship. I am confident it will boost our economic ties in much the same way the FTA in Goods has done".

With the regional situation in flux in view of China's increased assertiveness, political and security cooperation found a fresh impetus at the summit. The vision document stressed on "fostering greater security cooperation and information sharing in the form of regular and high-level dialogues to address traditional and non-traditional security challenges, including transnational crimes and terrorism."

"We should intensify our political and security consultations, including in regional forums such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus," said Manmohan Singh. "We should work together more purposefully for the evolution of an open, balanced, inclusive and transparent regional architecture," he said. "The growing role and responsibilities of ASEAN and India in global affairs also call for increased consultation on a broader range of international developments," he said.

The leaders also decided to give a strategic cast to their burgeoning trade and investment by agreeing on closer consultations in crafting regional economic architecture and organizing multi-sectoral economic dialogues. The two sides also decided to scale up private sector investment and public-private partnership linkages. The vision document focused on spurring connectivity in the region through closer rail, road and air links. The two sides pledged to complete the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway by 2016 and its extension to Lao and Cambodia.

With the South China dispute creating unease in the region, India and the ASEAN leaders agreed to "strengthen cooperation to ensure maritime security and freedom of navigation, and safety of sea lanes of communication for unfettered movement of trade in accordance with international law." India, however, shied away from intervention, with External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid saying the issue of sovereignty should be resolved by the countries concerned.

China claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Recently, China objected sharply to Indian Navy Chief D.K. Joshi's remarks that the navy was ready to protect Indian economic interests in the disputed South China Sea.

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