India-Thailand free trade agreement by 2010: Thai PM

New Delhi, June 26 (IANS) India and Thailand have stepped up negotiations to conclude a landmark free trade agreement (FTA) by 2010, Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont Tuesday told top businessmen here as he sought a greater role for India in “bridging the digital divide in Asia.”

Allaying apprehensions of investors after a military-led government took over power last September, the Thai leader assured that the country’s economy was in top form and full democracy would be restored after elections, to be held before the year-end.

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“Our two countries are on track to conclude an FTA in near future, with a view to establishing the FTA covering trade in goods by 2010,” he said in his keynote address at a business summit, organised by three apex business bodies of India, at Hotel Taj Mahal here.

“Upon the achievement of this goal, long-term mutual benefits in trade and investment could be realised and our partnership expanded further to cover technological know-how and expertise,” said Surayud, who arrived here Monday evening on a three-day visit that also takes him to Kolkata as well as historical places like Varanasi and Sarnath.

Painting a buoyant picture of steadily burgeoning business ties, the Thai leader announced the launching of a weeklong India-Thailand FTA roadshow from June 28 to July 4.

Thailand’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sawanit Kongsiri will lead a prominent group of investors on the roadshow to important Indian cities to explore business opportunities that will come into play after the FTA comes into effect, Surayud said.

India’s Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, who was present at the business meeting, stressed on diversifying trade between the two countries and called for an FTA that covers not just goods but also services and investments.

Calling India “Thailand’s new major market and a key engine of the rising Asian economy,” Surayud underlined the importance of the proposed FTA and said that since the elimination of tariffs on 82 items under the early harvest scheme of limited FTA in 2004, bilateral trade has jumped to $3.4 billion last year.

The agreed target of $4 billion by 2007 is likely to be achieved, he said.

He sought more Indian investment in IT and pharmaceuticals – the two areas in which India has proven expertise.

The Thai prime minister stressed that India, with its vast reservoir of skilled personnel and entrepreneurs, could be “a key driver of a knowledge-based Asia.

“And we are convinced that the interaction of these assets with the dynamism of other growth areas in Asia, from China to Japan to ASEAN, can help ensure the peaceful rise of Asia as a key player in the global economy.

“Our growing partnership is the outcome of synergy between India’s ‘Look East’ policy and Thailand’s Look West policy.”

Earlier in the day, the Thai leader was accorded a ceremonial welcome at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace. He met External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and discussed with him a host of bilateral, regional and global issues.

Surayud lauded the nearly 100,000-strong people of Indian origin in Thailand for playing a prominent role in Thailand’s economic and social life.

He also praised them for contributing to the evolution of “a multi-dimensional relationship” between India and Thailand.

Surayud is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the evening for formal talks after which the two sides will sign two agreements in the fields of energy and cultural cooperation.