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India Promotes Idea of Free Trade within East, South Asia  - 2004-10-24

India is calling for closer economic integration with the nations of East Asia.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants East Asian and South Asian nations to create an integrated market spanning the region from the Himalayas to the Pacific Ocean.

Mr. Singh's call for closer economic integration in Asia came at the third business summit between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which was recently held in New Delhi. The call was echoed by several East Asian countries.

According to Mr. Singh, the ASEAN nations, along with China, Japan, South Korea and India, could create an economic community comprising nearly half the world's population. It would be larger than the European Union in terms of income, and bigger than the North American Free Trade Agreement in terms of trade.

India is also wooing East Asian investment as it tries to build

infrastructure to keep pace with its expanding economy. Prime Minister Singh says India's huge requirements in the transport, communications and power sectors represent an opportunity for East Asian businesses.

"The requirement for airports and railways will alone amount to $55 billion in the next ten years," he said. "Our power sector needs $75 billion and the telecom sector $25 billion over the next five years. We believe the Indian economy can absorb up to $150 billion of foreign investment in the infrastructure sector over the next ten years."

Soon after India liberalized its closed economy in 1991, New Delhi initiated what it called its "Look East Policy" by seeking to build closer political and economic ties with countries stretching from Burma to the Philippines.

India signed a framework trade agreement with ASEAN last year that will eventually lead to a free-trade area in goods, services and investment.

Trade between India and the ten ASEAN nations is still relatively small, only about $10 billion in 2003. Both sides want to raise that to $30 billion in three years.