India, Thailand to speed up FTA

New Delhi, June 25:

India and Thailand, a gateway to southeast Asia, tomorrow will sign two pacts in areas of energy and culture and speed up talks to firm up a free trade deal (FTA) that both sides hope to ink as early as next month.

Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh will hold talks with his Thai counterpart Surayud Chulanont on a broad array of bilateral, regional and global issues, including intensification of trade and investment between the two countries. Both leaders are also expected to discuss issues relating to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic (BIMSTEC) and the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation project — subregional groupings of which India and Thailand are members.

New Delhi has shown realism in dealing with the military dispensation in Bangkok, which sacked the democratically elected government led by the flamboyant Thaksin Sinawatra in September last year, and has not allowed this to affect the pace of its growing economic engagement with this important ASEAN country.

Two agreements, including a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on enhanced cooperation in the field of renewable energy and the cultural programme, will be signed in the presence of the two prime ministers after the two hold formal talks.

General Surayud, a former army chief who begins his three-day long state visit to India today evening, will also meet president A P J Abdul Kalam, external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee and commerce minister Kamal Nath and discuss with them a host of bilateral and global issues.

The focus of Surayud’s visit, the first after the military-backed government assumed power in September last year, is predominantly economic as Thailand seeks active economic partnership with India built around a free trade accord (FTA) to counterbalance its growing trade with China. He is likely to press India to increase Bangkok-Mumbai and Bangkok-New Delhi flights. In his discussions with Indian leaders, Surayud is expected to focus on speeding up negotiations for a FTA with a view to signing it as early as next month.

If the FTA goes through, the two countries can hope to increase their current $3 billion bilateral trade by 30 per cent per year. General Surayud will also address Indian business leaders at an interactive meeting organised by the apex bodies tomorrow. India is currently Thailand’s largest trade partner in South Asia, with trade over $3 billion last year. Thailand’s trade with China was estimated to be $25.1 billion last year — way ahead of its bilateral trade with India.

Besides visiting Delhi and Kolkata, Surayud, respected for his ‘good soldier’ image and known for his spiritual interests, will also go to the Hindu holy city of Varanasi and nearby Sarnath where Lord Buddha first unveiled his discourses on enlightenment.