New Delhi: The government has set up a four-member group of ministers (GoM) headed by trade minister Suresh Prabhu to advise prime minister Narendra Modi on whether to continue with or withdraw from the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations.

“The GoM will find a way forward from the current deadlock. The industry, as well as most departments, are not willing to yield anything more to RCEP countries. It is a political call now," said a trade ministry official, requesting anonymity. Pressure on India has been rising to concede more market access to member countries, including China, and conclude the negotiations by end-December.

“The GoM will also look at the broader picture. The RCEP summit is in November, by which time we have to tell other countries whether we want to be in or out," the official added.

The GoM also includes finance and power minister Piyush Goyal, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and housing and urban affairs minister Hardeep Puri. The first meeting on coming Friday will be attended by the cabinet secretary, besides secretaries of all other concerned departments.

In the run to the meeting, commerce secretary Anup Wadhawan is separately meeting all the secretaries to brief them on India’s position on the various issues in the RCEP.

The GoM will also help India fine tune its strategy for the upcoming RCEP ministerial meet on 30 and 31 August in Singapore.

On 14 March, Mint had reported that Nripendra Mishra, the principal secretary to the prime minister, had met 15 secretary-level officials on 6 March to chalk out India’s strategy in the ongoing negotiations with RCEP. A majority of them, including the secretaries for defence, economic affairs, agriculture, textiles and steel, had opposed the proposed deal, saying that the presence of China in the grouping may hurt India’s interests in their respective fields.

Several countries in the grouping wanted India to open up its market for 92% of traded goods, while they remained reluctant to allow Indian skilled professionals greater access to their markets. India is ready to offer access for up to 85% of items, with deviations for countries such as China, Australia and New Zealand, with whom it does not have a free-trade agreements.

In recent times, there has been a growing clamour from the industry, as well as from within the government, to exit the RCEP.

V.K. Saraswat, member of the government’s think tank NITI Aayog, in a note published in April had argued that India needs to rethink joining the RCEP as it will be “disastrous" to provide more market access to China, which is a key player in the grouping.

In an interview with Mint in February, chief economic adviser in the finance ministry, Arvind Subramanian, too, had said that India needs to be extra cautious and take into account geostrategic issues while moving ahead with the RCEP deal, as it would mean opening up the market to its adversary China.

Former foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, at a presentation before the parliamentary standing committee on commerce, had called for “observance of due restraint" and warned against concluding trade arrangements that are not in India’s medium-term interest.

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