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SE Asia resumes free-trade talks with India

Written by: Staff

Kuala Lumpur, Aug 24: The 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has resumed free-trade talks with India, Malaysian and Indian ministers said on Thursday, but they set no deadline by which to wrap them up.

''Now today we have agreed to resume the negotiations as soon as possible, with Malaysia leading the way, and we hope that it can be completed expeditiously,'' Malaysian Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz told a joint news conference with Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath. The talks had stalled after ASEAN said India had wanted too many goods to be excluded from the proposed agreement.

The ministers said they had not set a deadline for the completion of the talks, which have stalled several times already.

Rafidah said India had agreed to reduce a list of 560 products it earlier wanted left out of the pact, but ASEAN was not happy with the target dates -- some as distant as 2022 -- it had proposed on some of the concessions offered.

''We cannot say that we are satisfied, because we have just decided we can go back to the negotiating table,'' Ong Keng Yong, ASEAN's secretary-general, told reporters.

Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, who engaged in vigorous mock sparring with Rafidah throughout the news conference, said ''India has its sensitivities, just as ASEAN has its sensitivities''.

ASEAN, which encompasses more than 550 million people and has a combined economy larger than India's, has said in the past it wants the list of excluded items to fall to 400.

The trade talks initially ran aground after India asked for 1,414 items to be excluded from the pact, including rice, textiles, palm oil, coconut oil and petroleum products.

This month New Delhi offered to ''substantially reduce'' import duties on some sensitive products, including cutting duties on refined palm oil to 60 percent from 90 percent, crude palm oil to 50 percent from 80 percent, black tea to 50 percent from 100 percent and pepper to 50 percent from 70 percent.

India said its revised offer included tariff cuts or tariff elimination for about 90 percent of products and provided preferential market access for more than 94 percent of ASEAN's exports to India.

Some products of interest to ASEAN, such as ceramics and wooden furniture had been permanently excluded, Rafidah said. Although India had removed palm oil and palm products from the original sensitive list, its deadline for cuts on them was too far off.

Malaysia is the world's top producer of palm oil, which is used in cosmetics, soap, the food industry and bio-diesel fuel.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.


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