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‘With or without India’: 15 member countries decide to sign RCEP on 13 March

Announcement made at ASEAN Economic Integration Forum in Bangkok. India decided against joining Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership nearly a month ago.

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New Delhi: Nearly a month after India decided against joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the remaining 15 member countries Monday decided to sign the proposed free trade pact by 13 March, ThePrint has learnt.

The announcement was made at the ongoing 4th ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Economic Integration Forum in Bangkok.

“RCEP countries have decided to pen down the agreement on 13 March 2020 without India. The world’s largest trade bloc will emerge in the absence of India. India may join later once ready or continue with its regional and bilateral agreements with ASEAN and other RCEP members,” said a diplomatic source representing one of the member countries.

The Narendra Modi government has been informed about the signing of the trade deal but it has shown “no interest” in “working towards resolving the outstanding issues”, the source added.

The proposed free trade agreement is between 10 ASEAN member states (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) and their six free trade partners (China, India, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Australia). The member nations account for a third of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) and nearly half of the world’s population.

According to another source, who is involved in the ongoing talks related to the pact, India has not come back to the negotiating table after it had decided to walk out of it.

Also read: RCEP freeze continues, India, Japan make no progress on sticky bilateral issues

‘Nothing left to discuss’ for India

Prime Minister Modi had on 4 November said no to RCEP at a summit held in Bangkok where leaders of the remaining 15 member countries gave their consent to formally sign the agreement by 2020.

At the time of opting out, Modi had promised that India will continue to discuss the pact, something which was later reiterated by Union minister Piyush Goyal too. In reality, however, New Delhi never went back to negotiating on it, said sources.

India also believes there is “nothing left to discuss” since the member countries already know what its demands from the trade pact are. If they agree to all of them, then New Delhi will sign the deal, a senior officer at the external affairs ministry said.

Home Minister Amit Shah had last month given a subtle warning to the RCEP member countries, saying they will have to come around to accepting India’s terms.

“Considering India’s growing stature, RCEP members can’t afford to ignore it for long, and will come around to agree to GoI’s terms. Meanwhile, India has maintained successful economic relations with ASEAN by the means of FTA,” he had said in an article.

India’s concerns with China and greater market access

One of the main demands that India had from RCEP is “significant market access” to other member nations. The fact that New Delhi has pulled out of the deal means it could not negotiate on a greater market access for its professionals, including engineers, doctors, journalists and IT workers, in member nations.

Some of the other concerns that remain unaddressed are inadequate protection against import surge, differences with China over pricing structure of goods, possible circumvention of rules of origin, keeping the base year as 2014 for tariff reduction, as well as no credible assurances on market access and non-tariff barriers, added sources.

India has also been facing stiff opposition from its industries and the farming community over the China-led RCEP and the over $60 billion trade deficit that New Delhi has with Beijing. The negotiations on the trade deal had started in 2012.

(Edited by: Myithili Hazarika)

Also read: Buy swadeshi and help push demand for local goods — PM Modi’s message to ministers


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  1. India’s problems lies with its destructive adversarial politics, wherein oppositon parties, oppose for opposing sake and will go any lengths to stymie and hobble every govt initiatives, whether it’s labor reforms, land-agrarian reforms or any kind of reforms. India’s inability to aggregate large contguous tracts of land in create economic zones, like in China, Vietnam, Malaysia, along with ad-hoc, bone-headed wishy-washy policies, only serves ensures that foreign investors will continue to shy away from even thinking of investing here.

  2. Remember a few months ago when’s India said *not* joining RCEP would be bad? That was correct. And remember how Indian media claimed a few weeks ago that Japan would not join without India – thereby threatening the existence of RCEP? That was wrong, and a gross exaggeration of India’s leverage.

  3. Recently I saw video clips of coconut cultivation in Thailand, bananas in the Philippines. Vast plantations, finally leading up to scientific packing of the fruit. A small Indian farmer could not possibly compete. The differential must be similar for Indian MSMEs in relation to competitors in China, Vietnam, elsewhere, for products ranging from garments to electronics. 2. Our inability to join RCEP – although India already has trade deficits of $ 50 billion each with China and other members – is a very public acknowledgement that the Indian economy has fallen far behind the rest of the world. If the gap continues to widen, we will be marginalised abroad, apart from stagnating at home.

  4. A country like India unable to organise its economy for international Integration and co operation is doomed.
    70 years after independence we still need the protectionism, are unable to compete with our peers.

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