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RCEP: Why India abstained from signing the free-trade agreement
November 18, 2020 | By - Raghav Gupta

RCEP: Why India abstained from signing the free-trade agreement

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a free-trade agreement signed by 15 countries that account for over 30% global population and about 30% of global GDP. It was signed on 15 November 2020 at the virtual ASEAN Summit hosted by Vietnam. 

The trade pact was first conceived in 2011 ASEAN Summit that took place in Bali, it was not until 2012 ASEAN Summit in Cambodia that formal negotiations were launched to bring it live. The agreement has been signed by 10 ASEAN states and five of their FTA partners. 

Member states include 

ASEAN states 

  1. Brunei 
  1. Cambodia 
  1. Indonesia 
  1. Laos 
  1. Malaysia 
  1. Myanmar 
  1. Philippines 
  1. Singapore 
  1. Thailand 
  1. Vietnam 

    FTA partners 
    South Korea
    New Zealand
    Japan
    China 
    Australia  

RCEP: A mistake or well-versed ‘trade pact’ 

Amid global outrage over COVID-19 pandemic and a series of issues with China, the agreement is being perceived as a serious strategic mistake by Australia and South Korea. Analysts have raised question over Australia’s stance of China. Since, asking for a enquiry on the origin of COVID-19, Australia and China have landed into a ‘dirty’ trade war with both nations banning passage ways for goods. For South Korea, the quite signing of this pact would mean ignorance of China’s activities in South China Sea and separating the narrative from issues between neighbours. 

Why India did not sign RCEP 

India had in November 2019, rejected the proposal to join RCEP, the biggest free-trade deal in the world. New Delhi said there were significant unresolved issues keeping it away from the deal. However, the door for India remains open for a late entry. Along with India, US has also distanced itself from the pact, raising concerns for other member nations and the overall success of RCEP. 

India’s exit from the eight-year-long negotiations came as the first fall for RCEP and scope for further negotiations reduced after tensions rose between China and India over skirmishes in Ladakh region. The RCEP bloc is dominated by China and more countries are expected to join it in coming years as China increases its trade partners. Some experts have also termed it as ‘a big gun for Chinese foreign policy’ and ‘China’s trade agreement’. 

Several Indian officials have time and again opposed Chinese dominance and state that their country will only join when the situation is being upheld to international standards without any interference or influence from a single nation.  

Main issues keeping India away from RCEP  

  1. India feared that due to RCEP import duties on many goods would have to be slashed by 80%-90% resulting in quicker flow of imported goods into Indian economy. The government feared that it will damage the domestic industry with cheap goods coming from global manufacturing hub China. 
  1. The agreement could have also damaged India’s dream of becoming a self reliant nation as entry of several established foreign players could have stopped domestic entrants. 
  1. India also has a strong friendship with US and its entry into a Chinese-dominated trade deal could have upset its friends and partners in the West. 

How will RCEP affect US economy 

Since the start of 20th century, the world has stayed dependent on United States for a number of specialized goods and services. RCEP aims to end this dominance by giving the power into the hands of Asian and partner countries. If the trade deal comes into effect, it could strongly damage US’ export of goods and services, severely damaging its revenues.  

To come into effect, RCEP will need to be ratified by at least 3 member nations and 2 FTA partners. The process could take years as every country would want to make the deal happen in their favour. With coronavirus pandemic in the play, decisions and situations have become more complex for everyone. Once into play, RCEP could turn tables for US and China, that have been in a trade war for months.  

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