Thailand has vowed to accelerate negotiations on a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Sri Lanka, aiming to finish the talks by the beginning of 2024.
According to Auramon Supthaweethum, director-general of the Trade Negotiations Department, during the third round of FTA talks held during Jan 9-10 in Colombo in Sri Lanka, the two countries agreed on a timeframe to conclude the negotiations by the beginning of 2024.
The third round of negotiations was supposed to take place in 2018, but the discussions were put on hold for four years due to the pandemic and the restructuring of Sri Lanka's negotiations-related agencies.
According to Mrs Auramon, during the third round of talks the trade negotiating committees of the two nations focused on rules on bilateral trade in goods and services, rules of origin, investment, customs procedures, and trade facilitation.
In addition, the meeting updated the negotiation plans and set a timeframe to conclude the talks within 1-2 years.
Sri Lanka currently ranks as Thailand's fourth-largest trading partner in South Asia. In the first 11 months of 2022, bilateral trade between the two countries tallied US$334 million.
Thailand exported goods worth $253 million to Sri Lanka, including natural rubber, clothes, gems, ornaments, plastic pellets, machinery and machinery parts.
Meanwhile, Thailand imported goods worth $81 million from Sri Lanka, including gems, diamonds, machinery parts, clothes, plants and plant products and chemicals.
Sri Lanka and Thailand first began considering an FTA in 2016, when Somkid Jatusripitak, the former deputy prime minister, made an official visit to the island nation.
The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on technical cooperation, a letter of intent on cooperation in the area of small and medium-sized enterprise development, and a joint programme on tourism for 2016-18.
The Thai cabinet approved the negotiation framework for the FTA talks with Sri Lanka on May 8, 2018. These cover trade in goods, services, investment and comprehensive economic cooperation.
Under the framework, the two countries aimed to sign an FTA to triple bilateral trade to $1.5 billion in 2020.
According to Mrs Auramon, Sri Lanka is a developing country that boasts supporting factors for trade and investment, while Thailand is capable of tapping Sri Lanka as a gateway to expand Thai exports to South Asia, which has a population of more than 1.2 billion.
More importantly, Sri Lanka can be used as a distribution centre for Thai exports to the Middle East and Africa.
Sri Lanka is looking for investment and joint venture opportunities with foreign partners in several sectors, including hotel management, tourism-related businesses, hospitals, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and jewellery design.
The country is also interested in importing more food, household appliances, furniture and home furnishings.
Sri Lanka has already implemented FTAs with India (only trade in goods), Pakistan and Singapore. Negotiations are being held with China as well as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.