Regional or bilateral free trade agreements between India and other countries/institutions have always faced local resistance because of intrinsic anxiety that low cost imported goods would stifle the growth of domestic industry. Commentators have justified this apprehension advocating that domestic industry in India is still unprepared for international competition, and there are no state subsidies that the government provides to the industry for reducing costs and facilitating unfair cost advantage with regard to exports. Within India, sector specific associations are powerful and a result of which many items such as tea, palm oil, coffee and pepper were enlisted as highly sensitive list items (very less reduction in tariffs) when India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2009. India is witnessing a very high percentage of growth in services sector (contributes nearly two-thirds of India’s GDP)and therefore has always sought to offset the negative balance of merchandise trade with promotion of services sector and investment as an integral component of bilateral or multilateral trade talks.
RCEP is proposed to be one free trade area which will include 3.4 billion people across the East Asian and Oceania region, with a GDP of more than US $22 trillion and the intra RCEP trade would account for more than 30 percent of global trade, as it would integrate the three largest economies of Asia-China, Japan and India. For India, accession to this economic trading bloc would mean opening its large market of 1.25 billion people for the products from 15 countries including 10 ASEAN members and the five dialogue partner countries -China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Korea. During the last few meetings of RCEP negotiations, India has made it very clear that it would not compromise on issues related to trade in services and also addressing concerns related to the small and medium enterprises in the negotiations.
As discussed, RCEP is expected to bring the ASEAN countries and its six dialogue partners under one large geographic and economic landmass which would be one of the largest economic blocs in the world. India has Free Trade agreements or Comprehensive Economic Cooperation/ Partnership Agreements (CECA/CEPA) with Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Korea while it is negotiating terms of bilateral free trade along with services agreement with Australia, and New Zealand. India has proposed to include services sector into the larger negotiation process while many countries do not want to open their market for highly talented and qualified professionals from India. The bone of contention in this regard is Mode IV which ‘deals with movement of natural persons who are service providers or independent professionals’ to another WTO member country. India has pressed for the Mode IV negotiations while negotiating with Malaysia and Singapore. However, both the countries have only opened Mode IV for select individuals such as consultants, accountants, nurses and financial experts. The limited access to the emerging markets have annoyed Indian negotiators to such an extent that at one time India decided not to enter into any free trade negotiations without including services and investment in the negotiation blueprint.
India started economic liberalization process in early 1992, it is yet to integrate with the global economy given the intrinsic problems with regard to tariff structures, customs procedures and the inherent red tape which was a legacy of the license regime. However, putting onus on India for failed attempts with regard to free trade and better terms of trade with other countries across Asia would be unfair. India has not gained the promised advantage while trading with the price competitive economies of the Asian region. On the contrary, the low cost production centres, particularly China, which thrives on state subsidized production has easy access to the India market while it has not bestowed the same privileges to Indian exports. The tariff and non-tariff barriers in China are still not conducive to Indian exports leading to skewed balance of trade. Taking cue from China’s re-routing of its products through ASEAN nations, India has stressed on the stringently following the Rules of Origin (ROO) template with 35 percent of local value addition as a necessary prerequisite.
This year, in the post Wuhan summit bonhomie, Chinese government has opened its pharmaceutical market to select Indian drugs such as anti-cancer, and other lifesaving drugs which are relatively cheaper than Western imports. Overall China has removed import duties on 28 medicines imported from India. The trade frictions between India and China still exists as India has registered a number of anti-dumping and unfair trade practices case in WTO against China. Indian industry particularly Small and Medium Enterprises(SMEs) however accept the fact that cheap Chinese input material in sectors such as steel, pharma and other related industries have brought down the costs, and have also indirectly helped in real estate, automobile spares, and textile sectors. Nonetheless, larger industrial houses are not in favour of such opening up of market as they feel their future endeavors would be jeopardized if Chinese cheap products both in terms of raw materials and semi-finished products would curtail their market expansion plans through new products. These large industrial houses do control the Indian politics through their corporate funds given to various political parties to fight elections and have a sizeable influence among the country’s parliamentarians and legislators. SME sector in India is relatively unorganized, both in terms of associations and political clout.
In order to increase its trade with countries in East Asia and Oceania, India has been trying to adopt international production methods, and be a part of the Regional Value Chain(RVC). However, India’s incremental approach for market liberalization and other market facilitation efforts have not met with active engagement from the regional community. India has not yet been inducted into the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) which could have prepared the country for business standardization and harmonization of tariffs as per the APEC provisions. This would have created the base for effective implementation of the RCEP trade provisions with necessary structural support. Indian economists have made it very clear that only market access to merchandise trade without any quid pro quo would not be acceptable to the Indian entrepreneurs. It might also create social problems given the fact that Chinese cheap products have already decimated electronics, mobile, toys and silk industry in India. The cascading effect has left very large number of both skilled and unskilled labour jobless. Given the fact that select sectors in India are still labour intensive, retrenchment of workers has a political cost. There are apprehensions projected by industry associations that cheap imports would adversely impact the steel, chemicals, textiles, copper, aluminum, and pharma industry. India is has a sizeable share of global trade in automotive parts, pharma and textile industry, and so negotiations would be a long drawn affair. Further, strategic experts feel that India must not become an ancillary industry to Chinese production network as it would jeopardize India’s rise in future as a production and skill center in Asia. Also, it will put China as the benefactor of India’s industrial change which might not be palatable to the political class.
Indian negotiators still believe that until and unless the demands with regard to trade in services, investment and also concerns related to SMEs is addressed, the RCEP would be facing an invisible deadlock. Opening up services sector would help the Indian economy and partly offset the effect that would be felt from the cheap products from relatively cheaper production and export centres. Indian economy still faces stiff competition from China and as a result of this the negotiations with China, would be long drawn affairs. However, there is still a silver lining that RCEP would be concluded in 2019 but the deadline from the Indian side would be after the general elections in 2019 when the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be looking for a second term to bring about comprehensive set of economic and financial reforms. In case a coalition government comes into power, it would seriously jeopardize the RCEP negotiations because then the different associations and lobbies would be playing the political game to protect their economic interests.