South China Morning Post - 15 January 2020
India’s ‘door still open’ to RCEP free-trade deal: Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar
By Kunal Purohit
- Ball is in court of other countries, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar tells the Raisina Dialogue conference
- He suggests terms would need to change if New Delhi is to rethink its position
More than two months after India pulled out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has suggested New Delhi could rethink its decision.
“We haven’t closed the door on [the RCEP]. The ball is in the court of the countries concerned and whether they make it worth our while,” he told the Raisina Dialogue, a three-day conference in the Indian capital organised by the government and the Observer Research Foundation think tank.
The RCEP is a free-trade agreement between 15 nations – the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
India had previously been expected to sign up but walked out of negotiations in a shock move in November last year, when the outline of the deal was agreed. At the time New Delhi cited concerns that its economy would suffer from an influx of overseas goods, especially from China.
The minister’s comments could breathe new life into the pact, which has been plagued by doubts since India walked out.
However, Jaishankar said the pact in its present form still did not make economic sense to India.
“The RCEP is, after all, a free-trade agreement and it has to be evaluated on its trade merits, its costs and its benefits. The bottom line was that the offers on the table did not match our requirements.”
While India was open to returning to the negotiating table, “there was a substantial gap [between India’s demands and what was offered] and that’s why we took the call that we did”.
The news that India’s stance could change is likely to come as a relief to China, which has been the driving force behind the RCEP and was disappointed when India refused to sign up.
Walking out of the negotiations, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invoked Mahatma Gandhi, suggesting that his decision was in the interest of India’s weakest and poorest citizens and blaming the other countries for deviating from the “basic spirit and the agreed guiding principles”.
China reacted by saying it would try to accommodate Indian concerns by following the principle of “mutual understanding and accommodation”.
OVERTURES TO CHINA
At the conference Jaishankar appeared to reach out to Beijing, saying it was essential the two countries “found equilibrium” in their relationship.
“It isn’t as much about getting along, because we don’t have a choice, we have to get along. But it’s about the terms, the basis and how it actually works out. That is where it’s a work is in progress,” he said.
But the minister also said India would “no longer be a prisoner of its past image”, adding that “India’s way is not to be disruptive, but to be the decider and the influencer rather than the abstainer. In fact, India owes it to itself and the world to be a just power”.
The two countries, which share a history of animosity, boundary disputes and military conflicts, have in recent years been trying to increase engagement with each other.
Last month, their representatives attended the 22nd round of talks on resolving the border disputes.
However, analysts say little has been achieved so far.
Jaishankar said it was vital for the two Asian powers to reach an understanding. “Both countries are unique in the way that their rise in the world order has been nearly simultaneous. Neither country can get this relationship wrong; there is a requirement for both of them to get it right.”