Reorienting India’s trade policy
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India’s commerce ministry is conducting a mid-year review of its trade policy to closely align it with the roll-out of the goods and services tax (GST) on 1 July. Truth be told, GST is important but probably too narrow a peg to hang India’s trade policy from; it might make more sense to re-anchor the policy in the shifting framework for global trade and the rapidly evolving nature of globalization.
Deep resentment against globalization’s misaligned distribution effects, a widening wage gap and increasing inequality have given birth to an aggressive brand of nationalism. Strands of these have now found utterance in the economic and political policies of many countries. Brexit in the UK was sold as regaining economic independence from the European Union. US President Donald Trump’s executive decisions on trade (withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, restricting H1B visas, threatening the North America Free Trade Agreement) or geopolitical moves (hectoring European leaders or abandoning the Paris climate change agreement) were custom-built to address localized grievances. The sharp pivot by both countries—main actors in constructing the post World War II global trade, financial and security architecture—has made globalization a guessing game, bereft of its earlier certainties and confidence. Both countries are now seen as flag-bearers of a neo-isolationist doctrine.
Australia, New Zealand and Singapore are also following in the US’ footsteps, complicating India’s traditional trade matrix. The picture is further muddied by two momentous shifts occurring in the subcontinent’s neighbourhood. One is the ambitious Belt-Road initiative, a vehicle designed to rejuvenate China’s surplus domestic capacity and to give expression to its expansionist aspirations. The second is the recent schism in the Gulf with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Yemen and the Maldives collectively imposing informal sanctions against Qatar by shutting down transport links and choking essential supplies.
All these developments are bound to reorder the global trade system. Therefore, it is imperative that India’s trade policy, while taking due cognizance of GST’s nitty-gritties, also realigns domestic trade infrastructure with the altering global trade landscape. It is also perhaps the perfect opportunity for the policy to be more of a strategy document rather than a manual. The statement accompanying the 2015 Trade Policy states: “Change has been a constant in the global economy, not least in the international trading landscape.” Never was a truer word spoken, and never has there been a better time to factor this truism into the national trade policy.
Three areas demand trade policy’s attention.
One is to prepare for less reliance on traditional trade partners in the West while increasing India’s trade and investment footprint in alternative markets, such as the African continent. India started looking at Africa seriously after the launch of economic reforms in 1991 and then with renewed vigour after the 2008 crisis. However, promises to increase two-way trade between India and Africa to $90 billion by 2015 have remained largely unfulfilled. India’s trade with Africa touched $56.7 billion during 2015-16, down from $72 billion in 2014-15. The drop is largely due to the fall in oil prices, which contracted India’s import bill with Nigeria. Meanwhile, China-Africa two-way trade touched $215 billion during calendar 2014.
India has intensified its relationship with Africa, which includes initiating several high-level visits since 2015. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Pranab Mukherjee and vice-president Hamid Ansari have between them visited 16 countries, with senior cabinet ministers visiting the remaining countries on the continent. During May, the African Development Bank held its 52nd annual meeting in Ahmedabad.
More needs to be done, of course. Trade policy can examine how coordinated action between commerce, finance and external affairs ministries might help in expanding India’s trade efforts; for example, a larger presence of Indian banks outside the conventional East African theatre can help reduce export credit costs. This includes reducing delays in implementing projects under Lines of Credit, India’s flagship instrument for development diplomacy.
Second, there is a need for a clear link between India’s trade policy and Make In India, including strategic linkages through global value chains. Policy clarity will be required whether India desires domestic manufacturing platforms that double as supply hubs for a global market, or assembly units that can be folded up and relocated elsewhere when cost arbitrage dries up (Chinese mobile units are perhaps a good example). Trade policy may be able to play a role here.
Finally, there is trade in services. There seems to be a concerted move within the rich countries—through the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development—to open up trade in services, including movement of professionals. This has been India’s longstanding demand because trade in services has been asymmetric so far—high in capital flows, information and communication technology, but low in free movement of professionals. Rising unemployment, particularly in Europe, could be driving Western agencies to prise open employment markets elsewhere. India’s demand (and strategy) for trade facilitation in services should find some articulation in the revised trade policy.
Rajrishi Singhal is a consultant and former editor of a leading business newspaper. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.
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