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India-ASEAN services FTA by year-end

India and the 10-nation ASEAN are set to formally sign a free trade agreement on services and investments by the end of 2013 and implement the ambitious agreement by July 2014, a top official said Monday.

Secretary East in the ministry of external affairs Ashok K. Kantha told reporters in New Delhi that the India-ASEAN FTA on services and investments would be inked by the end of the year.

He also announced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's forthcoming visit to Brunei and Indonesia Oct 9-12. In Brunei, the prime minister will be attending the 11th ASEAN-India Summit and the East Asia Summit, while he would be in Indonesia from Oct 10-12 on a bilateral visit.

Kantha, who is set to take over as India's envoy to Beijing, said the "legal scrubbing" of the free trade agreement was over and now it was in the realm of each country giving its internal agreement to the pact. India and the ASEAN already have a FTA on goods that was implemented in 2011.

The two sides had finalised the FTA in services and investments during the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in December last year. It was earlier expected to be signed at the Brunei summit during the prime minister's visit.

Asked if the concerns of countries, like Thailand and Indonesia, with regard to FTA on services and investments had been sorted out, Kantha said that "all issues have been sorted out". He said he was "quite optimistic" of the pact being inked by the end of 2013.

The free trade pact in services and investment when implemented is expected to facilitate the temporary movement of business people, including contractual service suppliers and independent professionals in accounting, architecture, engineering services, medical and dental, nursing and pharmacy, computer services and management consulting.

Some countries, especially the Philippines and Indonesia, had voiced concern over the movement of professionals under mode 4 - which will make entry of Indian professionals to the ASEAN nations easier. They feared it might affect their workforce with the increased presence of Indian workers and were opposing the agreement.

India and the bloc comprising Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have two-way trade worth $80 billion. With the pact on services and investment, two-way trade is expected to touch $100 billion mark by 2015.

Discussions would also be held on connectivity projects, including the Trilateral Highway, linking Thailand and Myanmar with India, the official said.

Manmohan Singh would hold bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the East Asia summit, and is expected to meet the new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, said Kantha.

A formal intergovernmental agreement on the Nalanda University that is coming up in Rajgir in Bihar is expected at the East Asia Summit.

The Nalanda University, set to come up 12 km from the Nalanda ruins, will start its first academic session from 2014 with two schools, postgraduate classes in ecology and environment and historical studies, said Kantha.

The modern Nalanda University is an initiative of the Indian government and is supported by the East Asia Summit, a forum of 16 countries of the East Asia region.

Several East Asia member countries have pledged funds for the university. Australia and China have promised $1 million, said the official.