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Focus on free trade, friends or no

New Delhi, Nov. 5: In a clear message to Pakistan and other bickering neighbours, India has decided to press ahead with its economic engagement with other key players in Asia irrespective of whether the stumbling blocks to business and trade in South Asia remain.

Explaining its “Look East” policy, foreign minister Yashwant Sinha said India was in the “heart of Asia” and its strength in science and technology, human resources and economic development were recognised by all the major players in the continent.

Whether or not the other South Asian neighbours want to be part of this progress was solely their choice. But if they did not, it is they and not India who will be left behind.

Sinha said India’s engagement has intensified with Japan, China, South Korea besides Australia and New Zealand. He pointed out the free trade agreement that India had signed with the Southeast Asian Nations in Bali last month. “We are on the threshold of an Asian free trade,” Sinha said.

The foreign minister did not mention any of the South Asian countries by name. But given the current background in which progress on the free trade and preferential trading arrangements between the Saarc members has been extremely slow, Sinha’s emphasis and the implications of his remarks were clear.

“When we talk about extended neighbourhood, we mean Australia, New Zealand, Central Asia, the Gulf countries and West Asia. And India is in the heart of it, both geographically and otherwise,” Sinha said.

He claimed that Delhi could become the centre of engagement of all these countries and take the lead in economic growth, along with China, in the 21st century.

Sinha pointed out that traditionally India’s engagement with the Asian neighbours and what he described as Delhi’s “extended neighbourhood” had been based on friendship and amity and never on the might of the sword.

“This spirit still remains. We want to assist these countries in the best possible way by economic engagement, cooperation in science and technology and technical assistance,” he said.

The foreign minister, however, pointed out that if all these were to be achieved, it was essential for peace to prevail in the region.

“Threat to peace is a threat to economic prospects,” Sinha said. He explained that this was one of the main reasons why India was making common cause with most other countries in Central Asia, West Asia and the Gulf on fighting terrorism.

“Since the threat is present in all these countries as much as it does in India, we all share a common perception,” the foreign minister said, adding that the fight against terrorism was becoming increasingly global.

“The difference in perception on the issue is fast disappearing,” Sinha said.

“There can be no more double standards and distinctions about good terrorists and bad terrorists,” he added.

Sinha was to quick to explain that the fight against terrorism, however, should not be seen as “a clash of civilisation” or directed against any particular religion. “The menace of terrorism has to be fought with single minded-objective,” he said.

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