India still has some “critical” unresolved issues with the 16-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the government said on Thursday, and hoped that negotiations over the weekend — ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Thailand — will “clarify” matters.
Briefing journalists on the Prime Minister’s visit to Bangkok from November 2-4 to attend the RCEP Summit, ASEAN-India Summit and the East Asia Summit, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said India had “participated constructively” in RCEP negotiations over the years.
“There are obviously some critical issues still outstanding and efforts are being made to try and resolve them to provide a fair and transparent trading environment. These issues are extremely important for our economy and livelihood of our people,” said Secretary (East) Vijay Thakur Singh.
Clarity after summit
“India remains engaged to find a resolution of these issues and we expect greater clarity after the ministerial meeting and RCEP summit,” she added.
Diplomats from other RCEP countries — which includes the 10-nation ASEAN and their FTA partners, India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand — have said India is now the only country holding out against committing to concluding RCEP on Monday during the summit.
On Saturday, Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal is expected to participate in the RCEP ministerial meeting, where a last attempt will be made to bring India on board. According to an official from one of the countries tasked with convincing India to sign, they are hopeful that even if Mr. Modi refuses to sign on to the main RCEP agreement, India would initial an “agreement in principle” to join, along with a commitment to “continue negotiations” with the others.
Only outstanding issue
Government officials travelling to Bangkok also confirmed that the main RCEP announcement agreement draft has been finalised by the RCEP secretariat, while diplomats of other countries said the only question remaining was “whether India would join on Monday or will discuss joining at a later date”.
When asked about the possibility that India would be left out of the RCEP agreement with other nations going ahead, Ms. Singh said that she couldn’t “speculate when negotiations are still going on.”
If concluded, the RCEP FTA will create the world’s largest economic bloc and cover half of its economy. The government has been hesitant to join the grouping for a number of reasons including that the RCEP will necessitate a lowering of tariffs and ease access for Chinese goods to flood the market, which has been opposed by Indian industry bodies, farmers and trade unions.
In particular agriculture groups including the All India Kisan Sabha and Indian Coordination Committee for Farmers Movement have announced protests against any move by the government to join the Partnership, which they claim will mean import duties will be abolished on most agricultural products and farmers would be liable for intellectual property challenges from seed companies.
The MEA also confirmed that the next meeting of officials of the “Quad” comprising U.S., Australia, Japan and India will be held on the sidelines of the East Asian summit. In September, ministers of all four Quad countries had met for the first time, significantly elevating the grouping’s importance. A few weeks later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the elevation of the Quad as an important move in the effort to ensure “that China retains only its proper place in the world.”
Speaking to journalists ahead of the next Quad meeting, Ms. Singh said India also hoped to “work with ASEAN” on its Indo- Pacific maritime programme adding that India has maintained the “centrality of ASEAN countries” in the Indo-Pacific.