FTA talks finally approach finish line

Bangkok Post, Thailand

FTA talks finally approach finish line

Thailand and India hope to seal pact by March as part of a series of new cooperative ventures.

By Tony Arora

9 January 2012

After eight agonising years of negotiations, Thailand and India hope to conclude talks on a wide-ranging free trade agreement (FTA) by March, according to Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul.

The bilateral pact on goods will be more liberal than the Asean-India FTA, Mr Surapong said during his recent two-day visit to India.

"The FTA is expected to provide great benefits in areas of trade, services and investments," he said, adding that issues such as market access can be more openly discussed through bilateral negotiations.

Thailand and India for nearly six years have had limited free trade in 82 categories, recently increased to 83, under the "early harvest" programme, which has helped double bilateral trade value over the period.

Mr Surapong was in New Delhi recently to attend the sixth meeting of Thai-Indian Joint Commission after a lull of almost four years. Taking part were representatives of both countries’ ministries of foreign affairs, energy, natural resources and environment, commerce and labour, and security officials. Heading the Indian side was External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna.

"We had launched our bilateral and regional FTA talks in 2003," said Mr Surapong. "At that time we had very little experience in negotiations for FTAs. Over the years, our expertise has grown and so it is appropriate for us to start the agreements now.

"We plan to discuss a wide range of topics with the Indian government such as mutual cooperation in trade, defence, security, education, culture and other regional cooperation frameworks."

Mr Surapong was also preparing the ground for the official visit of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from Jan 24 to 26 as chief guest on India’s Republic Day, for which only one head of state or government is invited annually.

Indian officials said the pacts being prepared for signing during Ms Yingluck’s visit include a protocol for a framework agreement on free trade, action programmes for cooperation on science and technology and culture, as well as a memorandum of understanding on security cooperation.

Senior commerce ministry officials in New Delhi say India is taking an aggressive approach in the services sector but Thailand does not appear comfortable with giving more access to Indian professionals.

In the overall picture, said Mr Surapong, more market access will lead to liberalisation of sectors that will provide mutual benefits to both countries.

Since 2006, there has been vast expansion in trade between India and Thailand which has doubled to US$6.6 billion.

"The Thai government is also encouraging business communities in both the countries to increase their interactions so that we could explore further business opportunities," said Mr Surapong. "We believe there is huge potential in areas of science and technology as India has remarkable research and development capabilities."

Both countries also plan to set up CEO forums, expand cooperation on education and cultural exchange, facilitate Thai pilgrims to visit India and promote the production of Indian films in Thailand. Joint development of satellite-based geographic information systems is also in the pipeline.

Legal officials, meanwhile, are looking at expediting a bilateral extradition agreement and expanding mutual assistance in civil lawsuits.

Mr Surapong acknowledged concerns on both sides about the presence of Indian gangsters known to have operated out of Bangkok and other cities in Thailand, He said the two sides were keen on accelerating negotiations on transfers of convicts and an extradition treaty.

At present, the India-Thailand Joint Working Group on Security Cooperation looks into transnational crimes, counter terrorism and criminal justice matters.

The Joint Commission meeting also addressed other issues such as aviation rights, visa arrangements to facilitate visits of Buddhism monks, Thai pilgrims, businessmen and ordinary tourists to India, as well as support for the restoration of Nalanda University, the ancient centre of higher education in Bihar, and the cerebration of the 2,600th anniversary of Lord Buddha’s enlightenment.

Both sides agreed to restore the strategic partnership initiated by the former Thaksin Shinawatra government. It will be announced when Ms Yingluck visits India.

As well, Thailand has asked India to transfer Thai aviation rights from routes not yet fully used to those on which there is demand for more flights.

Thailand and India are also working with other countries on a free trade pact covering the Bimstec group (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation).

As well, the two countries are in talks for setting up a cooperation fund, and a road to link India, Myanmar and Thailand. The Dawei seaport project in Myanmar and the Pak Bara deep-sea port in Thailand’s southern Satun province will offer both countries even more opportunities.

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