ASEAN, India sign free trade deal: officials

BANGKOK: India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a free-trade agreement on Thursday expected to raise annual trade to 60 billion dollars within seven years, officials said.

"The signing today is a good sign of the extended trade between ASEAN and India," said Porntiva Nakasai, commerce minister of Thailand, which holds the 10-member regional bloc's rotating chairman ship.

"The agreement comes at an appropriate time taking into account the current world economic crisis," she said in a statement.

The agreement has been hailed as a milestone following years of tough negotiations between ASEAN and India, its seventh-largest trading partner. It covers billions of dollars in trade and a market of 1.7 billion people.

The signing came ahead of a meeting in Bangkok this weekend of finance ministers from ASEAN and its regional partners China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Trade between ASEAN and India totaled 47 billion dollars last year but would rise to 60 dollars billion under the pact, Dow Jones newswires quoted Thai Commerce Ministry spokesman Krisda Piampongsant as saying.

The Southeast Asian bloc of about 550 million people is forging free trade pacts with key regional economies, including China and India, to ensure it does not become economically sidelined.

ASEAN itself aims to achieve a single market and manufacturing base by 2015.