RCEP issues can be solved by November: Australia trade negotiator

Topics RCEP deal | rcep meet

The various issues of contention in the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement can be addressed within November, the deadline decided on by all negotiating countries, including India, the lead trade negotiator from Australia, has said. 

In Delhi to discuss ideas on moving forward on the deal, James Baxter on Thursday said the last ministerial meet in Bangkok had seen all negotiating trade ministers unanimously decided to complete the negotiations in full by November, seven years after talks started. 

He also stressed the final agreement deal will be signed only after discussions are completed on each of the chapters and that any deal will necessarily include all negotiating countries. Senior leaders from the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) bloc, including Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, had said the mega Asia-Pacific deal can be negotiated without India “for the time being”. 

Sources have clarified that seven of the 20 negotiating chapters in the deal, while discussions on two more are technically completed. Also, three of the eight annexes have also been decided upon. These chapters deal with reduction of tariffs, investments, services trade, movement of professionals across borders, investments, dispute resolution and rules of origin, among others. Baxter, however, added that major discussions have been concluded and the remaining issues can be smoothened out within the end of the year.  The RCEP secretariat had internally set up a date of November 4 for concluding the deal. “As long as India’s domestic industry and our national interests is protected, the faster it (the RCEP) is done, the better it is for India,” Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal, said on Wednesday. 

Thorny issues 

The RCEP is India’s most ambitious trade pact currently under negotiation. It includes the 10-nation bloc and their six free-trade agreement (FTA) partners — China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and, most importantly, New Zealand. So far, 28 rounds of talks have concluded, apart from eight minister-level meetings. 

Baxter also said rules for services trade will not be different for each nation. On the other hand, the commitments by each nation to provide market access to other members through the reduction of import tariffs, will vary on case-to-case basis, he said.  New Delhi has consistently focused on services trade norms, such as those allowing the free movement of trained professionals across national boundaries. This would allow Indian professionals — such as chartered accountants, teachers and nurses — to work in other RCEP nations without the need for bilateral mutual recognition agreements. 

Internal opposition 

Domestic industry has repeatedly complained that the deal would disproportionately increase imports from manufacturing powerhouse China and the Asean economies. After repeated calls by industry to abandon the deal, India had told Asean nations in July that the domestic industry is not convinced of a ‘win-win situation for all’. 

However, on Wednesday, Goyal said most industries are in favor of the deal, Goyal said some of the opposing industries have not understood the details yet.

Over the past two years, other ministries such as agriculture, steel, chemicals, and MSME, among others, have also opposed the deal, arguing it will lead to an influx of cheap Chinese imports and decimate local manufacturing. However, the Ministry of External Affairs is reportedly on board while the Commerce Department claims the deal would be crucial to expanding export markets. 

Disagreement among ministries had led to the government setting up a four-member group of ministers headed by previous Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu to advise the Prime Minister on the matter in August, 2018. Subsequently, the Prime Minister’s Office had itself assessed the pact and its fallout one year after Narendra Modi promised to seal the deal by 2017-end.

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