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Let us seal FTA early, Prime Minister tells regional club

Indian Express, India

Let us seal FTA early, Prime Minister tells regional club

By Rakesh Sinha

4 March 2014

Urging the seven-member BIMSTEC grouping to fast-track trade and economic cooperation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday called for “early conclusion” of the BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement and said it should be extended to investment and services.

Hours later, the third summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) issued a joint declaration directing the trade negotiating committee to “expedite work for conclusion of the Agreement on Trade in Goods by the end of 2014, and to continue its efforts for early finalisation of the Agreement on Services and Investments”.

Singh said India would soon launch a direct shipping line to Myanmar. He also announced the opening of a BIMSTEC Centre for Weather and Climate in Noida near Delhi. On the security front, he called for negotiations on a BIMSTEC extradition convention.

Addressing the summit, Singh said the FTA should be wrapped up early: “Most of us here are connected with each other through one or more regional economic arrangements and it should not be difficult for us to conclude one for BIMSTEC.”

Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand make the BIMSTEC club, home to one-fifth of the world’s population and some of the poorest, with energy and mineral reserves that promise a future if governments fast-track growth and cut red tape for business.

A framework agreement for the BIMSTEC free trade area was signed in Phuket, Thailand in February 2004, committing parties to negotiate FTAs in goods, services and investments. But that pact has been elusive.

Ahead of the Nay Pyi Taw summit, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh called the BIMSTEC negotiation process “particularly complex because it already encompasses countries which have FTA under the SAFTA process, and then you have other countries that belong to ASEAN… we have to arrive at an outcome that is optimal for India and them”.

Prime Minister Singh listed energy as another priority for the BIMSTEC. “As India and some of its neighbours are getting linked by energy grids, we are already experiencing the regional and national benefits of energy cooperation. We must connect each other through transmission highways and gas and oil pipelines, while examining opportunities for cooperation in renewable energy sources. I hope the BIMSTEC Energy Centre planned in Bengaluru will play a key role in this.”

“In coming together, we are not only stepping out of narrow, traditional definitions of regions such as South Asia or Southeast Asia, but we are also building a bridge across Asia’s most promising and dynamic arc,” he said.

Underlining physical and digital connectivity as “a driver of cooperation and integration”, Singh asked his counterparts to “identify and implement priority projects of regional importance from the comprehensive study prepared by the Asian Development Bank.”

“And even as we develop physical infrastructure, we should simultaneously start developing the supporting architecture of rules and regulations to facilitate cross-country movements… To promote both BIMSTEC tourism packages and intra-BIMSTEC travel, let us declare 2015 as a Year of BIMSTEC Tourism.”

Pointing to the “evolving threat of terrorism in the BIMSTEC region”, the Prime Minister sought early ratification of the Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Trans-National Organised Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking and early signing of the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters.