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India to have ASEAN mission, PM signals new initiatives

India will explore new initiatives to take its strategic partnership with the 10-nation ASEAN to a new level, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Wednesday as he arrived on the first leg of his Southeast Asia trip in Brunei's capital to take part in the 11th India-Asean Summit and the 8th East Asian Summit.

The prime minister is also expected to announce a dedicated ASEAN mission and an envoy for the strategic region at the India-ASEAN summit Thursday. 

India's engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its 10 member-nations is the very essence of its Look East Policy which, over the years, has evolved into a comprehensive and multifaceted partnership between the two sides. Over the years it has gone beyond the economic to acquire strategic content.

The India-ASEAN Summit in Brunei is the first since the relationship was elevated to a strategic partnership at a special commemmorative summit in New Delhi last December. In a statement before leaving New Delhi, the prime minister said the summit would allow him and his ASEAN friends to "review " the progress so far and "explore" new initiatives to add further momentum and content to the partnership. 

Indian officials accompanying the prime minister said the ASEAN is "critical" to India's diplomatic forays in the Asia-Pacific region and as part of a new initiative, the government is planning to set up a separate ASEAN mission which will handle the country's all ASEAN-related mechanisms and activities.

The new mission will be set up in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, where the ASEAN Secretariat is based.

The Eminent Persons Group (EPG) last year recommended a dedicated ASEAN mission and the government has accepted this, officals said.

Officials said the new mission would handle all ASEAN related affairs.

India's relationship with the ASEAN has expanded beyond imagination just a few years ago to areas ranging from economy, security and defence cooperation to energy and technology.

Twenty-seven different mechanisms are at work now, spanning diverse fields. The mechanisms include the ASEAN-India Summit and seven meetings at the level of ministers for external affairs, trade, agriculture, tourism, telecommunications, environment and new and renewable energy.

"We expect more dialogue mechanisms to open up in the coming months," said a top official of the external affairs ministry. 

"To take this relationship to the next step, we will set up a new mission for ASEAN and a separate ambassador for the region." 

"The announcement is expected to be made by the prime minister during this trip to the ASEAN-India summit," said the official. 

In June this year, India set up the ASEAN-India Centre in New Delhi. It is now working to set up a ASEAN-India Centre for trade and investment.

ASEAN-India trade today stands at $76 billion. 

"We have a target of $100 billion by 2015 and $200 billion by 2022," said an official.

India and ASEAN are expected to ink a free trade agreement (FTA) in trade and services by this year-end. An agreement on goods is already in place. 

The prime minister will also take part in the East Asia Summit, which has emerged as the foremost forum for promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region, where India has vital stakes. 

India has been closely involved in the evolution of of an open, balanced and inclusive regional security architecture on the basis of centrality of the ASEAN.

The prime minister said India saw the East Asia Summit as a "springboard" to enhanced regional cooperation and integration.

India is participating in the negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership among the ASEAN and its FTA partners to create an economic community by 2015.

"My visits to Brunei Darussalam and Indonesia will further intensify our engagement to our engagement to our East, which has been the forefront of our foreign policy, and contribute to peace, prosperity and stability in the Asia-Pacifi," said the prime minister.

The East Asia Summit also supports India's efforts to set up the Nalanda University in Bihar as a global education destination and talent hub. The university is scheduled to begin academic programmes next year.