More negotiations for RCEP - but will India join?

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The deadline for the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is approaching, but will India be a part of it?

More negotiations have been taking place to thrash out the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), but India's reluctance to sign on the dotted line remains a major sticking point for this ambitious free trade agreement.

Let's take a closer look at why the nation has been holding back and what this might mean for the future of the deal.

RCEP and its scope

New Delhi played host to another round of discussions concerning RCEP this month, with the ten ASEAN nations joining Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and China for the talks.

RCEP aims to create a free trade, zero customs duty zone in a region that contributes to 40 per cent of world trade, as well as 34 per cent of global gross domestic product and almost half the world's population.

Were it to come into being, it would surpass even the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement in its scope and reach.

In mid-2018, it appeared as though things were looking up for RCEP, with the nations hoping to make an example of themselves in terms of free trade at a time when American president Donald Trump was championing protectionism.

A hurdle to jump

Indeed, Japan and Singapore hinted they had hoped to reach a conclusion to the deal by the end of that year. However, India's reluctance to open up its markets meant the participants had to concede defeat and defer until the end of 2019.

As that deadline approaches, it is still unclear as to whether India is going to sign or not. In December 2018, the nation's government brought in three external consultants to independently examine what the 'gains and losses' would be to India in the long run.

To many, the decision to carry out assessments more than five years after negotiations began - and after seven areas of RCEP had been finalised - seemed strange.

India's arguments against

However, trade and industry experts in India have insisted they remain concerned that they will have to give more market access to China once RCEP is signed, further increasing their trade deficit.

Indian manufacturers also claim Beijing has long been manipulating World Trade Organisation laws by giving subsidies to its domestic manufacturers, something that would be detrimental to India in terms of a pact.

Another concern is that RCEP will remove customs duty on around 85 per cent of items, which could see Chinese goods flooding the Indian market.

India has therefore suggested a two-sided deal that keeps some barriers up against Chinese imports yet also opens up to the other RCEP participants. It also wants the option to raise duties in the event of a surge in products from partner nations.

Ultimately, though, India is running out of time, with RCEP needing to be concluded by the end of November 2019 and many of the other countries losing patience.

Malaysia has already made it clear that it would be willing to sign a deal that excluded India, for example, while China also went so far as to suggest its own version of RCEP that also cut its Asian neighbour out.

Japan vetoed this, but some other RCEP participants have been pointing out that ASEAN nations saw a jump in trade deficits the last time an FTA was signed with India involved.

Clearly, it is time for India to act one way or another.

Which way will India turn?

So, what is India going to do? Will it look to a future of growth led by exports, or continue its isolationist policy? Most analysts think the country cannot go on with protective tariffs and import substitution and would therefore be far better off opening up to the possibilities offered by RCEP.

In a signal they might be right, trade minister Piyush Goyal hinted last week that RCEP will be signed, although the government does still intend to protect its national interests.

Mihir Sharma, author of Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy, said: "I'm still hopeful that, come November, Modi's signature will be on this agreement. If nothing else, it would be a massive humiliation on the international stage for him to stand aside as all the other leaders of the Indo-Pacific come together to declare a new era is dawning."

All we can do now is wait for November and see whether India decides to open its doors to this new era - or to shutter up against it.