23 May 2024

Even though India is not yet on board the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), ASEAN leaders believe that they have made a breakthrough to make one of the world’s most important free trade agreements a reality.

“It’s a pity that India is not yet on board. We hope one day it will come on board,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore said.

“But nevertheless, this is a very major step forward for the RCEP. There was tremendous progress for which we have to thank the negotiators from all of the countries.”

According to the Straits Times of Singapore, Lee said there were no hard feelings towards India for being the sole holdout to the ASEAN-led deal.

“We understand India’s position,” he told reporters at the end of the 35th Asean Summit. “(Indian Prime Minister Narendra) Modi has expressed it in forthright terms. And there’s no anxiety or rancour.”

“We fully understand and appreciate India’s point of view. They have made that decision. We respect that decision,” he said.

India Today quoted sources in the Indian government as saying that India decided not to join RCEP because its concerns were not addressed in the agreement. The sources said the agreement does not reflect “its original intent” and the outcome is “not fair or balanced”.

They said China was forcefully pushing for inking the deal during the RCEP summit on Monday, which was seen as an attempt to counter-balance the impact of its lingering trade war with the US as well as to project the region’s economic might to the West.

However, the sources said India firmly stood its ground against signing up for the agreement, according to India Today.

A senior diplomat, Vijay Thakur Singh, in charge of East Asia of India’s External Affairs Ministry, said on Monday that India had told other would-be RCEP signatories that it will not be on board.

A joint statement issued by RCEP countries on Monday acknowledges that India “has significant outstanding issues which remain unresolved.”

The proposed free-trade agreement includes 10 member countries of ASEAN and six of the bloc’s dialogue partners — China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand.

If finalized, RCEP would have become the world’s largest free trade area, comprising half of the world population and account for nearly 40 per cent of the global commerce and 35 per cent of the GDP. The RCEP negotiations were launched by ASEAN leaders and the six other countries during the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh in November 2012.