India Exits China-Backed Trade Deal 15 Nations Plan to Sign
Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister. (Photographer: Bess Adler/Bloomberg)

India Exits China-Backed Trade Deal 15 Nations Plan to Sign

(Bloomberg) -- India decided against joining a trade agreement covering much of Asia, paving the way for 15 other countries to sign the China-backed regional deal next year.

India conveyed its decision to exit the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, foreign ministry official Vijay Thakur Singh told reporters in Bangkok on Monday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted that he was guided by the impact it would have on the lives and livelihoods of all Indians, especially vulnerable sections of society, she said.

“India had significant issues of core interest that remained unresolved,” Singh said.

“India has participated in good faith in the RCEP discussions and negotiated hard with a clear-eyed view of our interests,” she added. “We took the right decision in the national interest.”

Modi decided not to join the deal in order to protect service workers and farmers, an official told reporters in New Delhi on Monday. India had pushed the other 15 nations to address its concern over deficits and open their markets to Indian services and investments, the official said.

India Exits China-Backed Trade Deal 15 Nations Plan to Sign

India’s exit from the deal removes the biggest impediment to a pact meant to cover about a third of the global economy. In the run-up to the Bangkok meetings, where Asian leaders hoped to announce a breakthrough, India made last-minute demands that irked other countries as domestic opposition increased due to worries the country would be flooded by cheap goods from China.

India didn’t join the trade pact for primarily two reasons, said Amitendu Palit, senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

First, Modi government realized that by agreeing to RCEP it might alienate its own core constituencies like small industries and shopkeepers. Second, its core demands -- advancing baseline for tariff cuts to 2019 and getting swift market access for its professionals —- have not been met, Palit said.

“So eventually it was preservation of domestic interests that refrained India from joining RCEP,” he said. “ However, the RCEP agreement is yet to be finalized as right now only the talks have concluded. The window for India’s entry is not over.”

Last-Minute India Demands Jeopardize 16-Nation Asian Trade Pact

China has sought to accelerate the deal as it faces slowing growth from a trade war with the U.S., which withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership after Donald Trump took office in 2017. A deal would further integrate Asia’s economies with China just as the Trump administration urges Asian nations to shun Chinese infrastructure loans and 5G technology.

The U.S. has sought to downplay the significance of RCEP, with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross telling Bloomberg that it’s “not much of an agreement.” Most Southeast Asian leaders skipped a summit on Monday with U.S. representatives after Trump decided to avoid the annual meetings for a second straight year.

“It’s not a free trade agreement, it’s not anything remotely like TPP, nor anything remotely like our separate arrangements with Japan and with South Korea,” Ross said in an interview. “So I don’t think you want to blow that out of proportion. It’s a very low-grade treaty.”

No Trump or Pence in Bangkok Has Asia Questioning U.S. Strategy

China said Monday that the 15 remaining countries decided to move forward first and India is welcome to join RCEP whenever it’s ready.

“There won’t be any problem for the 15 nations to sign RCEP next year,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng told reporters in Bangkok on Monday. “We are taking an open attitude -- whenever India is ready, it’s welcome to get onboard.”

“RCEP is not much of an agreement,” Ross told Bloomberg. “It’s not a free trade agreement, it’s not anything remotely like TPP, nor anything remotely like our separate arrangements with Japan and with South Korea. So I don’t think you want to blow that out of proportion. It’s a very low-grade treaty.

--With assistance from Philip J. Heijmans, Sophie Jackman, Natnicha Chuwiruch and Dandan Li.

To contact the reporters on this story: Suttinee Yuvejwattana in Bangkok at suttinee1@bloomberg.net;Bibhudatta Pradhan in New Delhi at bpradhan@bloomberg.net;Santosh Kumar in Mumbai at skumar705@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at dtenkate@bloomberg.net, ;Sunil Jagtiani at sjagtiani@bloomberg.net, Karen Leigh

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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