India-ASEAN free trade agreement on verge of completion

Negotiations for a free trade area between India and Southeast Asia are on the verge of being completed after about a year's delay, India's commerce minister said Friday. Disagreements between India and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian nations over textiles and agriculture will soon be ironed out and the free trade area should be in place by January 2007, Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath said.

Nath, who was in Kuala Lumpur to attend annual ASEAN meetings, did not give details of the disagreements. "The negotiation is on the verge of completion. We have passed many, many milestones," he told reporters, adding that trade between India and ASEAN is expected to increase by 30 percent annually because of the deal.

The two sides agreed in 2002 to start formal negotiations to establish a free trade area by Jan. 1, 2006. Talks were halted temporarily, and the original target abandoned, due to disagreements over how goods assembled in a country from parts produced elsewhere should apply under the deal.

Malaysia's International Trade Minister and Industry Minister Rafidah Aziz, who is coordinating ASEAN-India talks, said progress was stalled because India declared it did not want to remove import duties on more than 1,400 ASEAN products. Nath has promised to prune the list, she said.

"India presented an exclusion list of 1,414 products which represent 44 percent of ASEAN's total exports to India, valued at US$4.76 billion," she told reporters. The products range from items such as toilet seats, chewing gums and dolls to heavy duty exports such as vegetable oil and petroleum products, two items which jointly account for 27 percent of ASEAN's exports to India, she said. But Nath has promised to trim the exclusion list.

"This is just a first list. It certainly requires substantial pruning. I don't see any problems. We are very confident. We are certain it is going to happen," he said. ASEAN and India "are two large economies" and both stand to gain by using their "complementarities and strengths. That's what economic cooperation is all about," Nath said, reports the AP. N.U.

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