Referring to the Indo-Pacific region as the “centre of geopolitics” in the future, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav suggested that the government could show some flexibility on the issue of joining the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade agreement.
The RCEP grouping’s ministerial meetings last week also announced they would leave the path “open for India” to rejoin the agreement, if India were to reconsider its position before the agreement is signed this November.
“Should the decision [to walk out of] RCEP be taken as the final decision, or should we still keep one window open?” Mr. Madhav asked, speaking at a webinar organised by New Delhi-based Indo-American Friendship Association (IAFA) last week, on India’s Foreign Policy under Prime Minister Modi.
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“Because if you want to be a good global player, you cannot be out of all institutions and then say you want to be a global player. So India must play its cards carefully and with much more thinking in the Indo-Pacific region,” he added.
In November 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced at a meeting in Bangkok that India would drop out of the RCEP negotiations with ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) and partners China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, primarily due to its concerns over having its markets overrun with Chinese goods. Since then, despite several attempts by the RCEP countries to invite Indian negotiators to talks on trade, the Ministry of Commerce has repeated the government’s refusal.
Negotiations have made “significant progress” said RCEP country ministers in a joint statement on Thursday, with plans to finalise the RCEP agreement in November 2020. In the past few months, the RCEP Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC) has held a meeting in Indonesia in February, followed by three rounds of negotiations (29th-31st rounds) through videoconferences as well as two ministerial meetings.
India has declined to attend any of the meetings including the 8th Trade Ministerial meeting on August 27. India had also turned down a proposal from the TNC in April this year to reconsider its objections to giving market access for a “limited number of products”, if New Delhi would rejoin.
“The Ministers... reiterated that the RCEP remains open for India given that not only had it participated in the RCEP negotiations since they were launched in 2012 but also in recognition of the potential of India to contribute to the region’s prosperity,” a joint statement read issued at the meeting on August . A Japanese trade official quoted by Kyodo News agency also said “each country will make its own efforts in getting India back to the talks.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who stepped down this week due to health problems, was expected to make a last-minute push for India to rejoin RCEP during a proposed visit by Mr. Modi to Japan for the India-Japan summit scheduled for September or October this year. It is unclear whether the visit will proceed as planned in the light of Mr. Abe’s resignation.
However, government officials have maintained that there is no change in India’s stand and even that the economic disruption and questions over global supply chain dependence on China during the coronavirus pandemic have “reinforced and retaliated” India’s decision to stay out of the RCEP.
In his comments Mr. Madhav clarified that he referred to the leaving “only a window, not a door” open for future possibilities with RCEP.
“This government understands that India’s future lies to the east of its geography. The effort has been to review the orientation of the foreign policy establishment, which is very entrenched...We are so westward bound, westward Ho, it is [difficult] to convince the establishment that our interests and future is in the east: the Act East [policy], the Indo Pacific is the epicentre of 21st century geopolitics,” Mr. Madhav said.