KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 17 (Agencies): Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will set a timeframe for India to decide whether it wants to continue negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the grouping, a Philippine official has said.
ASEAN economic ministers will decide on the timeframe during the 38th ASEAN Economic Ministers (AEM) meeting to be held here later this week, Malaysian national news agency Bernama said quoting Philippines' Department of Trade and Industry Director Ramon Vicente T Kabigting.
"India is serious about its talks with ASEAN on FTA and New Delhi's delegation to the ASEAN-India economic officials meeting is reaching Kuala Lumpur tomorrow," an informed source said here.
Sources also added that India had not been informed of any suspension of FTA talks.
Malaysian International Trade Minister Rafidah Aziza had said on the sidelines of the recently held ASEAN Regional Forum that the ASEAN grouping had suspended FTA talks with India as there had been no progress in the talks. However, the ASEAN Secretary General later said the talks were still on as both the sides were keen.
ASEAN feels that India was not opening its market enough for the grouping to trade. India had come up with an exemption list of 1,414 items, which was later slashed to 854 items. ASEAN is targeting up to 400 products.
"We value India as a partner but we cannot partner with them if the conditions are like that," said Kabigting, who is leading the Philippines' delegation to the ASEAN Preparatory Senior Economic Officials Meeting (SEOM) for the AEM meeting.
India's Commerce Minister Kamal Nath is expected to reach here on August 24 for the ASEAN-India talks.
Pointing out that India may have its reasons for doing so (exempting 854 items), he said: "So we have to respect that. In the meantime, we cannot go on. We will just wait for a while until the Indian side has a different idea."
Kabigting said India's exemption list affected items that were of value to ASEAN.
"They are underheating the things that are important to ASEAN. For the Philippines, it will affect about six out of our top 10 exports to India," he said without disclosing the products.
For his country, Kabigting said India's list affected nearly 80 per cent of the value of what the Philippines exported.
Earlier this month, ASEAN Secretary General Ong Keng Yong said the group should complete the negotiations with India by July 2007.
Meanwhile, Southeast Asian officials today said trade talks with Australia and New Zealand were progressing smoothly but want labour, environment and intellectual property to be dropped from negotiations.
"Technically, it is moving smoothly," said Ramon Vicente Kabigting, a director with the Philippines' department of trade and industry.
But Kabigting said labour, environment and intellectual property were sensitive areas for the 10 members of the ASEAN which are at different levels of economic development.
"These are sensitive areas to ASEAN but Australia and New Zealand want to have discussions on it in the FTA," he told the news agency.
Kabigting said some ASEAN members do not have the infrastructure and laws to grapple with the three issues.
"They do not wish to have the issues in an agreement," he said, adding that ASEAN was opposed to any discussions.
"We are not offering any discussions. It is the preference of ASEAN not to discuss labour, environment and intellectual property," he said.
A senior ASEAN official echoed similar sentiments.
"We want to focus on trade, investment and services," he said.
Negotiations were launched last year towards creating a free trade zone known as AANZFTA which would embrace ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand.
ASEAN economic ministers will consult with their counterparts from Australia and New Zealand here next week on progress towards the deal.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has said that economic unity would increase two-way trade between Australia and ASEAN members that already stood at 41 billion US dollars in 2005.
Australia has made a concerted effort to forge closer ties within ASEAN in recent years, last year dropping its opposition to signing the grouping's non-aggression pact in return for a seat at the inaugural East Asia Summit.