Top Indian official to miss talks in China on sweeping Asian free trade deal

Laura Zhou

India’s commerce minister will not attend a ministerial meeting in Beijing this week, hampering China’s push to seal a massive free trade deal amid a protracted trade war with the United States.

Because of an extension to the Indian parliamentary session, Piyush Goyal will not be among the ministers meeting in the Chinese capital on Friday and Saturday to discuss the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Instead, India will be represented by Commerce Secretary Anup Wadhawan.

The Chinese city of Zhengzhou is hosting trade negotiators from the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) as well as Australia, Japan, China, India, New Zealand and South Korea.

The absence of Goyal could cast a shadow over the fate of the proposed agreement, which would encompass around one-third of the world’s economy and almost half of its population.

Beijing sees RCEP as a major way to diversify its market in the face of mounting trade pressure from the US.

Addressing trade delegates in Zhengzhou on Friday, Chinese vice-commerce minister Wang Shouwen said China was taking a series of measures to open up its market that would “offer firm support” to RCEP negotiations.

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Indian media reported that before the extension of the parliamentary session, Goyal had been expected to hold talks with his Chinese counterpart about bilateral trade, which reached a record US$95.5 billion in 2018, with a US$57.4 billion Indian deficit.

The administration of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been cautiously mulling the idea of quick conclusion of RCEP, and Goyal has held a series of discussions with various representatives from Indian industry last week, according to The Hindu.

The industrial players had serious concerns about the agreement, including worries of inflows of cheap Chinese goods, as well as a lack of access for Indian services in the RCEP area, the report said.

Observers said that Beijing, a key promoter of the partnership, was likely to offer concessions, including lower tariffs on Indian products, to advance marathon negotiations, which have been under way since the concept was proposed in 2012.

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Despite India’s reluctance, countries in Southeast Asia as well as China, Japan and Australia have been pushing for a deal to be reached by the end of this year.

In Bangkok on Tuesday, Asean secretary general Lim Jock Hoi echoed hopes for a speedy resolution.

“We are in the seventh year so we don’t want to go beyond that,” Lim said, according to The Nation, a Bangkok-based English-language news outlet.

“We have to understand India’s problems, because they have to deal with domestic pressure.

“But it’s not just India. We have 16 other economies with different levels of development and in various stages of liberalisation, so it is not easy to put them in one basket. We need to balance the interests of each country, that’s the role of Asean.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Zheng

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