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Damien O’Connor, New Zealand minister of agriculture and minister of state for trade. (Ramesh Pathania/Mint)
Damien O’Connor, New Zealand minister of agriculture and minister of state for trade. (Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

‘India risks being sidelined if it doesn’t join RCEP deal’

It will require compromise from us all (to adequately address India’s demands on RCEP)... it was always going to be challenging, says Damien O’Connor, New Zealand minister of agriculture and minister of state for trade

NEW DELHI : Damien O’Connor is the New Zealand government’s minister of agriculture as well as the minister of state for trade and export growth in charge of the country’s negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). During his ongoing visit to India, in the backdrop of India refusing to join the trade deal, O’Connor said in an interview that it will be disappointing if India doesn’t join the deal. Edited excerpts:

Why did other RCEP members fail to accommodate demands by India which forced India to stay out of the deal?

Well, they didn’t fail to, we have been working through all the chapters for seven years and then it got to a position when India said ‘there are still issues we have to work through’. What happened is other countries decided that they will conclude the agreement on the text and they will leave the door open for India to work through on a bilateral basis on the issues that are still to be resolved.

Do you think some of the demands by India were made at the last minute?

Well, when minister (Piyush) Goyal came in, he took a close look at all the chapters. We respect the right of countries to do this. Clearly, we hoped to be closer to finalization (of the deal). As I said, we have left the door open for that process to continue.

Are you still hopeful that India’s demands could be adequately addressed to rope it into RCEP again?

Absolutely. It will require compromise from us all. That is trade negotiation. I hope we will get to that point. This is an agreement that includes half the world’s population, it was always going to be challenging. We have to respect that.

Since the joint statement said text-based negotiations are now closed, does it not close the door to accommodate major changes demanded by India?

If there are major changes, that may be challenging. But if there are minor changes and we can reach some compromises, I am sure that can be done.

But the demands by India are well-known. So, you can say whether they are major or minor?

We all had demands at the start of the agreement, but we all had to compromise our demands as we have gone forward.

But the joint statement also says that the 15 members need to explore whether they can accommodate India’s demands. So, the onus seems to be on the 15 members, not on India?

Look, it’s both sides.

By when you expect the legal vetting and signing of the deal among 15 countries to take place?

There is no firm time frame for very good reasons. We hope the agreement can be reached (with India).

Do you think if India does not join RCEP, the trade deal will be heavily tilted towards China?

I think it would be disappointing not to have India as part of this. The risk to India is that it is sidelined, loses on emerging technology, on new trade opportunities through South-East Asia which has huge growth and you become more isolated and the economy does not realise the potential it has.

RCEP would have meant an indirect FTA(free trade agreement) between India and New Zealand. Does it make sense for New Zealand to be part of an RCEP without India?

That’s one of the issues we will work on. We understand the value of rules around free trade and we understand the value of a regional agreement like this. At a time internationally, when some of the WTO (World Trade Organization) rules have been challenged, the appellate body issue can’t be resolved, we have got Brexit, we have got EU-US-China trade tensions, having some secure rules and certainty for businesses that trade internationally have huge value to us all.

The farmers and the dairy sector in India are opposed to RCEP because they fear imports of dairy products will adversely impact marginal dairy farmers in India. What’s your take on that?

It is not feasibly possible for us to flood the market in India. We can only feed 40 million people if all our production come to one place. We have a third of our exports going to China, we have a lot going to Europe and the US. India is just one market opportunity. But this is not just about goods, this is about exchange of services, about intellectual property, about protection of e-commerce. So, this works both ways.

I guess India is also demanding that New Zealand allows more Indian skilled professionals to migrate to your country for better job prospects. Is New Zealand okay with that?

We have a lot of Indian migrants in New Zealand (that includes) some casual labourers, some skilled labour and some professionals that have come to the country. That would continue and we welcome it. We are a very small country. We need to ensure that when migrants come into our country, they have genuine job opportunities, have security, have a place to live. So, we manage the number of migrants into the country. We don’t want our employment market flooded and we don’t want people who are unemployed. We want to bring in Indian people who have real opportunities in our country.

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