New Delhi/Bangkok, Nov 1 : As Indian negotiators in Bangkok, led by Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal, race to conclude negotiations on the RCEP mega trade deal ahead of its proposed signing on November 4, there is heightened awareness that if India decides against inking it for now, it could put New Delhi in an awkward spot.
Negotiations for the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) deal have been going on for the past seven years, and India was close to concluding it.
However, New Delhi has now raised “new issues”, which are hampering concluding the negotiations, Bangkok-based sources told IANS.
The deal, which would cover half the world’s population, is set to be inked during the ASEAN leaders’ summit on November 4 in Bangkok, which would be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On Thursday, Indian officials said that New Delhi would “participate only in a fair and transparent trading environment”.
As opposition from various quarters in India — agriculture and dairy sector, and industry and even from political parties — mounts over the China-led trade deal, some foreign media have already started painting India as the emerging villain of the piece.
Of the 25 chapters, 23 have been negotiated, and only a chapter on investment is yet to be resolved, while on services, there are some issues to be sorted out with the Philippines, the sources said.
India has raised differences over areas like rules of origin, e-commerce and base year tariff.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is keen to portray India as business-friendly, has held two intense meetings in New Delhi on the RCEP issue, one in September and another in October, to convey the message that keeping out was not an option for India.
However, with opposition mounting over fears that the deal could result in India being flooded with Chinese products, Indian negotiators are trying to put in additional safeguards, which could hamper India acceding to it.
“The problem is, while the other 15 countries think in terms of what they can export, with India the concern is how to prevent imports. India too should be thinking in terms of exports,” the Bangkok source said.
In case India is unable to finalise the deal before November 4, the other countries could give India three months to sort out matters before joining the other countries — the 10-member ASEAN and five other countries.
Indian negotiators are trying to include adequate protection against cheap Chinese imports in order to make the deal more acceptable for Indian industry and agriculture. To join RCEP, India will have to take on commitments for tariff elimination for about 90 per cent items from the ASEAN, Japan and South Korea, and over 74 per cent from China, Australia and New Zealand.
RCEP is a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the 10-member states of the ASEAN — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam — and its six FTA partners China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
RCEP member-states account for 3.4 billion people with a total Gross Domestic Product of $49.5 trillion, approximately 39 per cent of the world’s GDP, with the combined GDPs of China and India making up more than half that amount.
(Ranjana Narayan can be contacted at [email protected])