India, Asean finalise FTA in services

India on Thursday redefined its 20-year-old relations with South East Asian nations by elevating it to a strategic partnership and pledging to add more politico-security content to it — ostensibly to respond to growing economic and military ambitions of China.

India and the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) also concluded an intense negotiation for Free Trade Agreements (FTA) for services and investment just before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and leaders of the 10 nations in the region met here for a summit to commemorate the two-decade-long ties between New Delhi and the bloc. The deals will create a market of almost 1.8 billion people and a combined Gross Domestic Product of $ 3.8 trillion.

Despite calls from within the Asean for India to play a role in resolution of conflicts in the region, New Delhi steered clear of Beijing’s territorial dispute with Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam over South China Sea. India and the South East Asian nations, however, agreed to strengthen cooperation on maritime security to ensure freedom of navigation and safety of sea lanes of communication for unfettered movement of trade in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS.

“This (elevation of India-Asean ties to a strategic partnership) is a historic step, and together with the conclusion of the negotiations on FTA in Services and Investments, defines a qualitatively new paradigm of our partnership,” Singh said, addressing the plenary session of the summit that New Delhi hosted to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the ties. “It is a natural progression of the journey we embarked on together in 1992 and it will serve our relationship well in the next decade and beyond.”

“As maritime nations, India and Asean nations should intensify their engagement for maritime security and safety, for freedom of navigation and for peaceful settlement of maritime disputes in accordance with international law,” said Singh, adding: “We should also foster regional cooperation to counter piracy and respond to natural disasters.”
He also underscored the need to improve connectivity, enhance commerce, promote cooperation among institutions and deepen links between people of India and South East Asia.

With the summit being held under the shadow of China’s growing tension with several Asean nations over the South China Sea dispute, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung referred to the row in his speech in the plenary session of the conclave.
“I hope that India supports Asean and China in full implementation of the declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea and Asean Six-Point Principle on the South China Sea in order to settle the dispute by peaceful means on the basis of international law, particularly 1992 UNCLOS,” he said.

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