Business remain slow at India-Asean Expo despite bilateral bonhomie

Slow and lacklustre best describe business at the 4th India-Asean Expo and Summit 2019. Lone stalls featuring just a few brands wore a slightly deserted look, despite trade ministers and diplomats from the nations of the Asean bloc taking to the stage on Thursday along with Indian officials to herald new heights of trade.

Aimed at bringing together buyers and sellers from both sides and allowing Indian exporters to gain a foothold in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) bloc, the annual expo has seen little participation from the private sector.

Organized by the Commerce Department and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, the event has featured mostly government participation from Asean nations. “We didn't receive many queries from companies. So, we're just showcasing some famous Vietnamese brands at the lone stall manned by the embassy," said Nguyen Trong Nghia, second secretary, commercial attache at the Vietnam embassy. The same was true of Indonesia. 

Apart from the larger economies such as Singapore and Malaysia who have specialized products and a long trade history with India, few nations managed to select enough companies to showcase their products. Yet specialized brands are keen to enter the market.  

"We have wholesale buyers across the country but are now looking for bigger brands to source directly from us. With a fixed contract, we'll be able to streamline our shipments. But business has been slow till now," said Chen Jun Long, assistant manager at Singapore-based Compass Foods.

Trade flows remain high

The slow pace of business is not, however, reflected in overall trade flows which remain healthy. Bilateral trade has grown more than threefold from $21 billion in 2005-06 to $81.3 billion in 2017-18, making the trading block New Delhi's second largest trade partner after China.

While trade has grown on average by more than 13.6 per cent in the previous three years, in the April-December period of the current financial year, trade grew by over 20.5 per cent. Interest in the Indian market has remained high, but participation hasn't been able to match it, an organizer said. While as many as 200 plus exhibitors from India and Asean had initially been planned, the number had to be sharply revised downwards.

Still, more than 100 buyers from Asean are expected to participate over the three-day event. More than B2B (business to business), it’s the B2G (business to government) meetings that are attracting the most interest.

It’s that pact again…..

Apart from sectoral engagements between industry, ministers and officials from multiple nations are set to sit down with Commerce and Industry Minister Suresh Prabhu to discuss the stalled Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The proposed ambitious pact between 10 Asean economies and six others - New Zealand, Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea - is still stuck after 24 rounds of talks, not to mention six minister-level meetings.

India has issues over tariff reduction, market access and services trade norms, such as those on the free movement of trained professionals with other nations. Other countries have other differences. Nonetheless, the Asean bloc is keen to sign the deal by the end of 2019.

The Chinese shadow

China-India comparisons kept popping at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium which hosted the event.

 "While tourists from India are only now visiting Thailand, those from China have been coming for the past 10 years. We are trying to learn the unique demands of Indian visitors," said an official from the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

China's trade with Asean reached an extraordinary $436.8 billion in 2017, with Beijing single-handedly accounting for more than 17 per cent of the bloc's total goods trade. Last year, China said it was well on the way to achieving the $1 trillion trade target by 2020.

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