The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sinha sets trade priority

Chiang Mai (Thailand), Oct. 12: India has clarified it would not let its economic initiatives in Southeast Asia be frittered away in pacifying businessmen at home ahead of the crucial Assembly polls.

“The Indian economy has acquired sufficient strength and is now in a position to face the world with confidence,” foreign minister Yashwant Sinha said. He was summing up the Prime Minister’s six-day trip to Indonesia and Thailand.

“Indian industries have gone through their phase of adjustments and now they should be ready to face challenges from outside,” he said. But he quickly added that “genuine” concerns and grievances would be looked into.

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Sinha said, would not halt the steps it had initiated to lower tariff and trade barriers in the country to make it competitive and attractive for foreign investors. “It is a dynamic world and the process of reforms must go on.”

The high point of Vajpayee’s trip was a framework agreement for a free trade area between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), one of Asia’s richest economic blocs. India is hopeful the deal will boost its trade with Asean from $12 billion now to $30 billion by 2007 and lead to a free trade area in a decade. India also signed a similar agreement with Thailand.

Sinha cited fears from two years ago, when he was finance minister, to drive his point home about consistent reforms. Though the domestic industry lobby had back then expressed concern about goods from China flooding the Indian market, the goods had failed to push Indian stuff off the shelves.

“These steps are not only with the Southeast Asian nations, as we have taken similar initiatives with those in Latin America as well,” Sinha emphasised.

He said these countries were now interested in investing in India and share technology. “We must avail of these opportunities.”

Vajpayee, however, did not meet the media to talk about his trip, thus breaking from the practice. His statement was circulated instead to highlight the trip’s achievements.

The statement emphasised that wrapping up the framework agreement with Asean in less than 10 months “demonstrated its (India’s) ability and political will to deliver on its commitment to expand economic linkages within the region”.

India has offered to contribute $1 billion to the Asian Bond Fund as part of its engagement in the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, a Thai initiative. Vajpayee has even clarified that the proposed flights between capitals of Asean countries and major Indian cities could start without formal bilateral agreements.

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