New Delhi: The political leadership in the Narendra Modi government was never in favour of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), said Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), adding that the civil servants, who were negotiating for it, did not follow the brief given to them and pushed for the deal.
The RCEP is a mega free-trade agreement (FTA) that is being negotiated between the 10 ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members and their six trading partners — India, China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.
In an interview to ThePrint, SJM’s national co-convener Ashwani Mahajan said their stand of opposing the RCEP in its current form stands vindicated as the government itself is now pushing to put in place some safeguards and caveats to protect its interests.
Mahajan said the Modi government in its first tenure had made it very clear they were not in favour of the RCEP in its present form.
“I have been looking at the approach of the government (towards RCEP) for the last five years. And I found that the government’s approach was right, logical and it was very clear in the government that we will not push for this RCEP,” he said.
“The only decision made was that we will engage ourselves to understand the complexities of trade with these countries, (but) we will not sign it, and we will not commit (to) anything. But I think the negotiators (civil servants) have gone beyond the briefs,” Mahajan told ThePrint.
“I was present in a meeting about four-and-a-half years ago in which this was announced by the previous commerce minister. And this was made very clear to the negotiating bureaucrats that this is the brief of the government. (But) they went beyond the brief,” he said.
The civil servants, Mahajan said, should come back to the initial brief.
The SJM has started a 10-day nationwide protest against RCEP from 10 October.
“I am happy from the reports coming in from Bangkok. That yes, the government has raised the concerns of the domestic constituents. And it made it very clear that unless and until their concerns are met, RCEP won’t happen,” Mahajan said.
“I’m also very happy to know that even during the recent visit of the Chinese premier, it was made very clear as the statements are coming in that China has also agreed to the concerns of the trade deficit,” he added.
The meeting on RCEP took place in Bangkok between 10-12 October that was attended by Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal.
‘If RCEP is allowed, China will kill Indian industries’
Mahajan blamed the Congress-led UPA regime under which India-ASEAN FTA was signed, pointing out that there was no exit clause or renegotiation clause in it.
He said if RCEP is allowed, China, which is already dismantling Indian industries, will end up killing it.
“China has been instrumental in dismantling industry, manufacturing everywhere in the world, including the US and Europe. (US President Donald) Trump is also against Chinese trade and India. If we now have $54 billion of trade deficit with China, which was $63 billion a year ago, you can understand how many jobs are being exported to China. And this is when we don’t have an FTA with China,” he said.
“We already have the WTO agreement under which China is exporting goods to India. And if we have an FTA where 80 per cent of the goods are allowed to be imported at zero tariffs, you can understand the kind of dumping, which already the nation is facing, will accentuate and worsen the situation of the trade deficit; and what will happen to our rupee? What will happen to our jobs, to our manufacturing?” he asked.
Mahajan said India already has trade agreements with ASEAN countries and that experience has not been good. So, pushing for RCEP makes no sense, he added.
“When our experience has not been good and we have been fighting for a review of the ASEAN agreement then what is the logic of having a bigger trade agreement, including ASEAN and other countries,” he asked.
‘Not against trade, but national interests need to be protected’
Mahajan further said that right from the dairy sector to steel, chemical and automobile, no one wants RCEP.
“I haven’t found any of the industry sectors who are in favour of RCEP — whether it is the dairy, manufacturing, agriculture etc. Right from steel, chemical, telecom, automobile and many other manufacturing sectors have clearly said that they will be finished in no time if this RCEP is allowed to happen,” he said.
Mahajan said contrary to popular perception, the SJM is not against trade or free trade but national interests have to be taken into account.
“We are not against trade but free trade should be according to our needs, our requirements and where our economy can really get better treatment. If there is biased kind of free trade where they (China) are allowed to export everything to our country, but we can’t export to them, then we are against it,” he said.
Mahajan said China doesn’t allow India to export telecom and several other products.
“If we look at the Chinese involvement there is not even a single penny export from India to China, though our companies are capable enough to export to the Chinese, but they don’t allow it. So there are non-tariff barriers imposed by the Chinese. And these concerns have already been raised with them and we have been telling them that if they don’t allow our telecom companies to go there, how we can allow Huawei to come to India,” Mahajan said.
Asked to comment on Goyal’s statement that India can’t afford to remain isolated by opting out of RCEP, Mahajan said: “We don’t buy his argument of isolation. In fact, these arguments are no new arguments, these are very old arguments and India is not isolated. We already have WTO agreement and we are dealing with these countries according to our free trade agreements.”
He also cited the examples of the US and the UK, who are more concerned about protecting their national interests.
“We must learn from other countries as well. If America is not allowing Chinese goods to come to their country, are they in isolation? If Brexit is happening, is it isolation? A number of countries are reversing free trade. The free trade argument itself has failed because free trade has not worked for the best interest of our country,” Mahajan asserted.
He further said RCEP is against the concept of PM Modi’s flagship ‘Make in India’ initiative.
“RCEP and ‘Make in India’ can’t go side by side. They are conflicting and contradictory. If you want to make ‘Make in India’ a success, you need to go out of RCEP,” Mahajan added.