New Delhi: While countries like Japan are trying to woo back India into the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) fold, trade minister Piyush Goyal on Tuesday signalled that India would rather start negotiations for free trade agreements with the European Union and United Kingdom after the impending Brexit deal is signed.
“I have started talking to EU on a very informal basis. Barely a few days ago, their trade commissioner has been appointed and over the next few months, we will start a dialogue with the EU. Hopefully, Brexit should be done by January. We already have some preliminary exchange of dialogue with Great Britain. I hope to take that forward on a fast-track basis. With the US, we had several rounds of engagement, we are ensuring that even the first leg of our trade deal with them is for the benefit of both countries equitably. I can assure all of you going forward none of these FTAs will be settled in a hurry or will be settled to the disadvantage of Indian industry and Indian exporters," Goyal said while speaking at the Exports Summit organised by the industry lobby Confederation of Indian Industry.
Negotiations on the India-EU FTA started back in 2007 and 16 rounds have been held since then, the last in 2013, before negotiations were suspended. Both sides have explored restarting negotiations after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government assumed power in May 2014, but uncertainties over Brexit and inflexibility on both sides have prevented a formal resumption.
Goyal said Prime minister Narendra Modi took the bold decision to stay out of RCEP in national interest because RCEP had become nothing but an “India-China FTA" and the country was not getting balanced outcomes. “For the first time, it reflected the resolve of the government that diplomacy would not prevail over trade. Trade will stand on its own feet. India should benefit out of any FTA," Goyal added. Japan had indicated earlier this month that it would make all efforts to address India’s concerns so that India joins back the 16 member RCEP deal.
The trade minister said the earlier FTAs with Japan, South Korea, Asean, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have not helped India’s exports. “From 2011 onwards, after these FTAs were done with all of these countries, India’s exports barely inched up a little bit but imports have shot up drastically and therefore trade deficit with all these countries have multiplied manyfold. Let’s first see how we can benefit from the existing FTAs before giving more (market access)," he added.
Taking on China, Goyal wondered why Indian telecom companies did not seek to drag China to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for failing to provide market access. “I wonder where the proponents of free trade were when Uber was forced to exit from China. Where was WTO when Facebook, Google, e-commerce companies were allowed to enter China. We in India also need to raise our voice and be a little more proactive," he added.
Goyal said the government is exploring how to better leverage the Indian embassies and High Commissions to support Indian businesses to boost exports. “I have talked to External Affairs minister S Jaishankar. Prime minister is very keen that each of our embassies should have a partner state. For example, embassy in Sweden which does a lot of business in Pune can possibly have a representative in government of Maharashtra stationed in Stockholm and become a bridge between Indian industry and Swedish industry and sort the issues on a real time basis," he added.
Deriding some industry chambers, Goyal said several of them have become the “B-team of import lobbies". “When the government is trying to take action to strengthen our quality standards, stopping non-essential imports by higher import duties or any other way the Indian industry is protected, it is our people who come in with lobbying and influence the government to reduce our efforts to support Indian industry. It pains me when I see that industry bodies have become so much dependent on imports themselves that instead of working for the domestic manufacturing, several industry bodies have become the B team of import lobbies. That I can assure you will not influence the Modi government. We are going to work relentlessly to support domestic manufacturing at least in areas where we have competitive advantages," he added.