India urged the ASEAN member countries on Sunday to expedite negotiations for making the region a free trade area by July 2007, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promising to take steps for a free skies policy and tax rate alignment as part of the "Look East" approach.
"We should direct our trade ministers to expedite the negotiations so that the FTA can be finalised as agreed by July 2007," Singh told the 5th India-ASEAN summit here.
As part of aligning India's economic policies with those of the region, Singh said that "we have a policy objective of aligning our duty rates with ASEAN...We would be willing to engage ASEAN authorities in a discussion on open skies policy".
Pointing to the significance of ASEAN, he said while external trade with East Asian countries accounted for a 30 per cent share, India would surpass the trade target of $30 billion with ASEAN by 2007.
"I believe that the India-ASEAN FTA will impart even further momentum to this growth in trade. We are strongly committed to its early conclusion and implementation," Singh told leaders of the 10-nation grouping that includes Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.
India was for economic integration by entering into free trade or comprehensive economic partnership pacts both with ASEAN as a whole and with individual countries, he said.
Singh said the "web of mutually beneficial partnerships can, we believe, be brought together in a Pan Asian FTA that could light up the future of this region".
He noted that progress had been made at the recent meeting of India-ASEAN trade ministers on resolving outstanding issues related to exclusion of lists and tariff concessions.
Detailing the economic environment in the country, Singh said, "India is very different from the India of 1991. It is now a vibrant market place. Our entrepreneurs are aggressively investing overseas. India has also emerged as a productive and profitable investment destination.
"We have a $700 billion economy that is growing at 7-8 per cent every year. In the first half of the current year, economic growth reached 9.1 per cent," he said, adding that India was actively pursuing external liberalisation by cutting down customs duty rates, which at 12.5 per cent now was quite close to the ASEAN level.
Emphasising that determination to renew linkages with Southeast and East Asia remains "unshaken", Singh said "this is amply demonstrated by the intensification of political dialogue and the steadily enlarging people-to-people contact encompassing all the countries of the region."
He said greater connectivity was also central to the idea of regional economic integration and the initiative to liberalise air services taken in 2003 had led to a significant increase in flight connections between India and ASEAN.
"I recall, at our last summit, the Prime Minister of Singapore had proposed that we now look at an open skies policy. We have examined this proposal and I am happy to announce that we would be willing to engage ASEAN authorities in a discussion on such a policy," he said.