NEW DELHI: As New Delhi continues to push for better connectivity with Southeast Asia through the northeast under its Act East Policy, Thailand's Ambassador to India Chutintorn Gongsakdi has said that "soft connectivity" is the key to India-ASEAN ties.
Commenting on the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, work on which is under way, Chutintorn said that construction on the Thailand side has been completed and "we are waiting for India to finish road construction in Myanmar".
"But what is more important is that when the road is finished, we have to be prepared on the customs, immigration and quarantine aspects because we cannot have roads and then people getting stuck at the border," he told IANS in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of a Thai food festival in the capital.
"So, we are interested in what we call the 'soft connectivity', the software for the people, the rules and regulations. Now we are negotiating the motor vehicle agreement."
According to the Indian External Affairs Ministry, the highway connecting Moreh in the northeastern state of Manipur with Mae Sot in Thailand is set to be completed in 2019.
Explaining why customs, immigration and quarantine comprise the difficult part of connectivity, Chutintorn said: "When we had a road going up to China through Laos, at one of the summits, the Prime Minister of Laos said that it cannot be that it takes five hours to get from one country to the next and then you have another five hours of customs, immigration and quarantine. So, we have to make sure that this does not happen. It has to be seamless and smooth."
His comments come as New Delhi prepares to host on January 25 a commemorative summit to mark the 25th anniversary of the India-Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) Dialogue Partnership and ahead of Thailand taking over from Vietnam later this year as country coordinator for India with the regional bloc.
Thai Prime Minister Prayur Chan-o-cha will be among all 10 ASEAN leaders who will be participating in the January 25 summit before attending the Republic Day celebrations the next day as guests of honour.
The ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Asked what would be the priorities for Thailand when it takes over as the country coordinator for India, Chutintorn said that it was too early to say but "at least we know we will continue with ASEAN-India priorities".
"Things like connectivity, maritime security, economic integration and especially connectivity link through the northeast," he said. "But also emphasising on maritime and air connectivity because only one dimension is not enough. We need air, sea and land."
Asked about India-Thailand bilateral economic ties, the Ambassador said: "We can do more because India-ASEAN trade is over $70 billion and with Thailand it is just over $8 billion, which is just over a tenth. It can be more."
In this connection, he stressed on the need to conclude the India-Thailand free trade agreement (FTA) and also Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
The RCEP is a proposed FTA between the 10 ASEAN member states and the six countries with which ASEAN has FTAs -- Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
On the India-Thailand FTA, Chutintorn said: "I think we need to sit down and have a talk about what we can do for each other because there is often the perception that Thailand is the only one benefiting from the early harvest of our FTA. This is because we had a surplus every year."
Stating that Thailand has no intention of blocking or not entertaining Indian service trade, he said that there is also a benefit to be had from India opening up to Thai products and services.
"We believe that a good agreement is one where we both can gain," the Ambassador stated.
On Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal's proposal for ASEAN countries open consulates in Guwahati, Chutintorn said that it is not feasible at the moment.
"To be honest, we are not rich countries and to do that, it's not a political act, it's also an economic act," he said. "To open an embassy or consulate general is a big financial commitment."
Chutintorn said the problem with India's northeastern region for industries to be located is that the size of the population of the state has to be looked at.
He said what would be most feasible would be for the northeast to engage in border trade with Myanmar once the Trilateral Highway is completed.
"In Thailand, we make so much money from border trade with Malaysia, with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. That is what is going to make the Northeast region prosperous. And also, of course, tourism and agriculture," the Ambassador opined.