India's 'Look East' policy is likely to get a major impetus when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh leaves on Sunday to attend the 11th ASEAN Summit and the First East Asia Summit to be held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from December 12 to 14.
This is the fourth year in a row that India would be attending the ASEAN meet. The East Asia Summit will essentially be in a 'retreat' format and no one really expects any major decisions to be taken during the summit.
On December 12, the prime minister will address a Special Leader's Dialogue in Kuala Lumpur.
The prime minister will lead a high-profile delegation and is expected to have wide-ranging bilateral discussions with the top leaders of China, Japan and South Korea, and seek stronger economic ties with the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations.
As far as the ASEAN is concerned, since the issues relating to rules of origin have already been sorted, the stage is set for India to foster a close relationship with all the 10 member nations. [Rules included in an FTA specifying when a good will be regarded as produced within the FTA, so as to cross between members without tariff.]
Finding ways to curb the menace of global terrorism too will be high on the agenda during the prime minister's visit. Apart from the 10 ASEAN members, India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand will also participate in the summit.
Addressing the media, in a pre-departure briefing, Rajiv Sikri, Secretary (East), in the ministry of external affairs, said that in the year 2004,trade between India and ASEAN stood at $18 billion, a growth of almost 25 per cent over the previous year.
This year, bilateral trade is expected to top $22 billion.
Although India would not be signing any free trade agreements at this meet, the groundwork will be prepared for future FTAs, especially in sectors like aviation, health, agriculture, transport and science and technology. These FTAs are likely to be completed within a year.
India has already set up entrepreneurial centres in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. India and Myanmar are also discussing the feasibility of building a railroad between the two countries.
While trade would be the main focus, there may be some discussion on the diplomatic front also. The MEA official pointed out that foreign trade now forms a very important part of India's GDP. He said that the prime minister is also extremely bullish on a pan-Asian movement.
While India would maintain a common denominator for nations under the ASEAN umbrella -- sensitive list, negative list -- at an individual level, the parameters may differ.
The summit is likely to discuss the means to increase the 'scope of connection' and what should be the future shape of the 'community of nations.'
When asked if India viewed China as a rival, the MEA official said on the contrary relationship and trade between the two countries has improved to a great extent.
When asked if India wanted to become ASEAN+ 4 (currently the group is called ASEAN+3, meaning the 10 ASEAN nations plus China, Japan and South Korea), the MEA official said that there was no such plan.