‘India’s reluctance to join RCEP understandable’

Pact looks like an extension of China’s Belt and Road initiative: ex-Australian PM

Updated - November 22, 2019 11:06 pm IST

Published - November 22, 2019 10:23 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Tony Abbott.

Tony Abbott.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement looks like an extension of China’s Belt and Road initiative, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, adding that he understood India’s reluctance to join the pact. He also said he was keen to see an India-Australia bilateral deal being signed.

“I can understand India’s caution about RCEP,” Mr. Abbott said at a media roundtable discussion. “My anxiety with RCEP is that just as the Trans Pacific Partnership was the economic leg of the U.S. pivot to the Asia Pacific, RCEP is like the trade leg of the Belt and Road Initiative.”

“While I’m all in favour of generous assistance to countries in difficulties, I am very wary of anything that might end up leaving vulnerable countries permanently indebted to another,” he added. One of India’s primary concerns about joining the RCEP pact was that its already-huge trade deficit with China would widen significantly. “I am cautious about RCEP,” Mr. Abbott said. “As PM, I certainly did my best to promote freer trade, but I was very keen on doing bilateral deals with our significant trading partners. Under PM Modi, Australia and India began discussions on a trade deal. It kind of got lost when there was no PM visit to India in 2015 and then I think it got subsumed in the RCEP negotiations.”

The former Australian PM said he was keen to see the bilateral deal working out and that once that was done, it would rekindle ‘enormous enthusiasm’ on the part of Australian businesses.

He further said that Australia was keen to see India join existing bodies, such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation agreement.

“We think existing entities would be better with India in them rather than without,” Mr. Abbott said. “So, if India was within APEC, I believe it would be a stronger, more effective body.”

Focus now on India

“I think we were quite right to focus on China for the 30 years or so, from the Deng reforms until quite recently, but I think the neglect of India is a pity,” Mr. Abbot said.

“One of the things I was able to do as PM was to end the neglect of India. Let’s ensure that in the years to come there is at least as much Australian focus on the relationship with India as there was in that 30-year period on the relationship with China.”

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