New Delhi: After taking a strong stance at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on the issue of food security and stalling the trade facilitation agreement, India has hardened its negotiating position at the regional comprehensive economic partnership (RCEP), expressing dissatisfaction at the way talks are progressing on the plurilateral agreement.

Commerce secretary Rajeev Kher told a conference in New Delhi that talks in goods and services—part of attempts to agree a trade deal—need to progress in parallel and told members of the need to take the size of the country’s economy into account.

“RCEP negotiations are at an extremely critical and significant juncture. Recently, the manner in which these negotiations have happened leave us with a little bit of concern. We need to move together rather than in a disparate manner," he added.

Kher said striking a balance in goods and services is extremely important in the agreement. “We have been seeking a parallel movement of goods and services. This integration has to take into account a proper balance and it is time for us to think about that."

Started in May 2013, RCEP comprises the 10 economies of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) region and six of its free trade partners: India, China, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

It envisages regional economic integration leading to the creation of the largest regional trading bloc in the world amounting for almost 45% of the world population with a combined gross domestic product of $21.3 trillion.

The regional economic pact aims to cover trade in goods, trade in services, investment, economic and technical cooperation, competition and intellectual property. India’s interests lie mostly in services, apart from removing technical barriers to trade such as those taken under sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures and trade in goods such as pharma and textiles.

Joining the RCEP is crucial for India since it is not part of the other two mega regional trade deals that are under negotiations—the trans-pacific partnership (TPP) and transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP)—because of the high-level of ambitions proposed for the deal. Both are led by the US.

Trade minister Nirmala Sitharaman skipped the recent RCEP ministerial meeting held in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, on 27 August. India is scheduled to hold the next round of RCEP negotiations between 1-5 December at Greater Noida.

Kher said India offers a market with a population of 1.2 billion, as well as the prospects of tariffs brought down from a relatively high level, and integrating manufacturing companies with its services economy with a strong focus on information technology.

“When India comes to a negotiating table, it comes with this strength. So, anybody who is negotiating with India has to take into account the size and the opportunities that this market offers," he said.

The commerce secretary said under the new government at the centre, India is embarking upon providing a fresh push for manufacturing and services sectors and “a refreshing review of reorienting, if required, its global engagement."

“India joined the plurilateral negotiations with a clear recognition that this will help it in accessing the region in a better way. It will help it in improving its manufacturing and services delivery efficiency and it will also make it more competitive," he added.

Former trade minister Anand Sharma, attending the first meeting of the RCEP trade ministers at Brunei in August 2013, had said that it will take immense effort, cooperation and compromise among the participants to arrive at a mutually satisfactory outcome which addresses the concerns of all the participants.

“India, while maintaining a single schedule, will need adequate flexibility to address her sensitivities which may differ for each individual participating country," he added.

After the end of the RCEP ministerial meeting, a joint statement had said the ministers were encouraged by the progress made after five rounds of negotiations in the areas of trade in goods, services and investment and reiterated the aim to complete the negotiations by 2015-end.

Ram Upendra Das, professor at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a think tank, said India’s viewpoint on developmental imperatives and negotiating position need to be perceived in a balanced manner. “Indian economic dynamism has many facets which has enormous potential to create a win-win situation both for India and the RCEP members," he said.

Biswajit Dhar, professor in international trade at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, said RCEP should not be seen as a typical market access initiative as it has a development pillar in its mandate. “RCEP should be an attempt to build a community like the ASEAN Economic Community and the European Union. Countries need to contribute to India’s development process to gain from it," he added.

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