| Prime Minister AB Vajpayee raises a toast to his Laotian counterpart Bounnyang Vorachit in Laos on Wednesday. (PTI)
Phnom Penh/Vientiane, Nov. 6: India today went into overdrive by assiduously courting Cambodia and Laos — two tiny nations in Indo-China — that have emerged as key players within the Asean who could push Delhi’s agenda to create a free trade area with the regional trade grouping within a 10-year time-frame.
A day after the Asean-India summit-level talks, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee met the Prime Ministers of the two nations — Hun Sen of Cambodia and Bounnyang Vorachit of Laos — where eight agreements in all were signed.
Cambodia and Laos — the smallest and latest members of the Asean — are two of the most ardent supporters of India, which has unwittingly been pushed into a race with China to seek Asean’s hand.
On Tuesday, China signed an agreement with Asean to create the world’s largest free trade zone comprising 1.7 billion consumers and a combined economy of $2 trillion. On the very next day, Vajpayee proposed to create a free trade area with Asean and received strong approbation from the Asean members.
Cambodia is the current chairman of Asean and Laos will host the summit-level talks between Asean and India in 2004; in the interregnum, Indonesia will host the summit talks next October in Bali.
The eight deals are in the nature of blandishments with common-cause partners and probably do not involve much by way of stumping up cash. But they have the virtue of underscoring the close ties that exist with the two countries and date back over several centuries.
The overarching centuries-old relationship was best affirmed by India’s decision to help renovate another temple complex in Cambodia — Ta Prohm — which comes on top of the 17-year-old rebuilding of the Angkor Wat.
This was one of four agreements that was signed today in the presence of Vajpayee and Hun Sen.
The agreement was signed between the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and Apsara, the Cambodian entity that oversees archaeological sites in the country.
India has earmarked an investment of Rs 25 crore that will be spread over a period of eight to nine years.
The ASI has already conducted a basic survey of the Buddhist temple complex at Ta Prohm, which reveals that this task will be a lot more difficult than the restoration of the Angkor Wat temple because it’s been overrun by a tropical rain forest.
The 12th century Angkor Wat temple — built over a period of 37 years during the regime of Cambodian king Suryavarman II — was rebuilt over a period of close to 17 years and today, generates tourist revenues of roughly Rs 70 crore a year, which is more than the revenues generated from all temple complexes in India taken together.
Apsara will also provide the land for a textile museum as part of the deal.
India has also extended the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to Cambodia, which creates a broad framework for the extension of preferential tariffs in an attempt to promote two-way trade. A soft credit line of $10 million will be extended to Cambodia with a payback period of 25 years, including a grace period of 5 years.
Under the terms of the fourth agreement, the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, will provide help to build a technology institute in Cambodia in order to build human resources in this part of the world.
The Kirloskars, who have been active in this part of the region, also gifted 10 pumps to the Cambodian government to deal with waterlogging problems that beset the country because of the severity of the monsoon rains this year.
The Cambodian Prime Minister sought India’s help to attain membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). India agreed to provide its expertise in dealing with WTO-related issues to guide the nation through the process.
Hun Sen suggested that India could help Cambodia build a railway network within the country that will eventually form part of a direct rail link between Singapore and Kuoming in southern China.
India has agreed to consider the proposal; there is a possibility that India and Malaysia will jointly develop the rail link in Cambodia. A team from the Indian Railways will visit the region to study the various aspects relating to this proposal.
At present, there are no rail connections among Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. A single line connects Malaysia with Thailand and Singapore, and southern China with Vietnam. In the eastern direction, the railroads in Myanmar stop several hundred kilometres away from its borders with Bangladesh and India.
The Asean has been talking about building the vital Singapore-Kuoming rail route that will connect South East Asia to China through the Indo-China region. The proposed route: Singapore-Kuala Lumpur-Bangkok-Three Pagodas Pass-Ye-Yangon-Lashio-Ruili-Kunming.
With China and the Asean yesterday agreeing to create a free trade area by 2008, the rail link could be a vital cog in promoting two-way trade in the region.
After a gruelling two-day schedule in Phnom Penh, Vajpayee and his entourage flew into Vientiane, the capital of Laos, where he held talks with Vorachit.
Another set of four agreements was signed here which included the provision of a soft credit line of $10 million on long repayment terms. The loan will be used to build a power transmission link in Laos to evacuate the excess hydel power to power-starved Cambodia.
Other agreements included a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on defence cooperation and a cooperation agreement between the two countries to stop drug trafficking, especially in psychotropic substances.
The drug trafficking agreement is part of an Indo-Asean initiative to fight the scourge of narco-terrorism.
Vajpayee’s visit to Laos is the first by an Indian Prime Minister since Jawaharlal Nehru came here in 1954.
Laos will become a key pointman for India, which has just been elevated to the status of a summit –level partner of the Asean along with China, South Korea and Japan. In July next year, Laos will be the coordinating country for India within the Asean, a role that is now being played by Malaysia.
Each summit-level partner of Asean has a coordinating country that acts as a sounding board and initiator of proposals coming from the region.
With India expressing its desire to create a free trade area with Asean in the next 10 years, Laos could play a key role in the years ahead if India does not want to be left behind. Both China and Japan are pursuing separate initiatives to create a free trade zone with Asean in the next six years with China clearly ahead in the race.
India is keen to build a lasting relationship with Laos, one of the poorest countries in the Asean regional grouping. Moreover, Laos is one of Asean’s staunchest supporters of India’s moves to seek a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. That explains the overtures that were made in Vientiane today.
Vorachit also urged India to persuade Indian businessmen to invest in the country, especially in the area of textiles and cement. He also sought India’s assistance in building a speciality hospital in Vientiane and upgrading the Wattay airport in the Laotian capital.