ASEAN Economic Ministers hold discussion with India over AIFTA

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Singapore, Nov 20 (UNI) The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economy Ministers today held an informal consultation with India to settle outstanding issues relating to ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement (AIFTA) by March next year.

Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, who is in Singapore for the ASEAN-India Summit, attended the meeting.

The Ministers reviewed the progress of negotiations for the Trade in Goods Agreement of the AIFTA, said a statement from the Singapore government.

''The Ministers noted with satisfaction the progress made since the last meeting in Cebu. While the main elements of the modalities have been agreed upon, a few issues relating to preferential access for a few products remain,'' said the statement.

Both sides have agreed to settle these issues by March 2008 with a view to concluding the AIFTA Trade in Goods Agreements by the ASEAN Economic Ministers Retreat in May 2008, it added.

Diplomatic and trade observers said ASEAN is asking India to make further tariff concessions on agricultural products and petroleum to end a deadlock in talks in order to create a free trade area.

The AIFTA was to be signed in January but negotiations with India has been uneasy with concessions sought by ASEAN in five key items -- petroleum, palm oil, pepper, tea and coffee.

ASEAN had wanted to conclude the AIFTA at this week's ASEAN India summit, but observers said India had challenges in opening up its sensitive sectors such as agriculture.

The AIFTA is vital to further boost trade between India and ASEAN, which amounted to 20 billion dollar last year and is projected to rise to 30 billion dollar by 2010.

The country is seen as an important market for ASEAN, especially the Indian consumer driven economic growth, and the market size of 1.1 billion people.

Indonesia and Malaysia, which accounts for 70 per cent of the world's crude palm oil, wants a 30 per cent tariff cut for crude palm oil and 40 per cent for refined palm oil. But New Delhi has offered to drop it to 50 per cent from 80 per cent and 60 per cent from 90 per cent, respectively, by 2018.

While Brunei wants India to cut duties on petroleum, Vietnam and Thailand are seeking more tariff concessions for black pepper, tea and coffee.

A large number of Indian industrial products, including steel, remains an important and competitive imports for ASEAN market of 570 million people, said the observers.

UNI

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