ASEAN Summit: Is India serious about regional trade pact?

Singapore Updated: Nov 19, 2018, 03:23 PM(IST)

File photo. Photograph:( PTI )

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At the moment, the over-arching economic objective for the group is to achieve full economic integration by way of a single market fully connected with the global economy by 2025.

If you were here in Singapore for the first time on a brief visit last week, you could be excused for wondering if it's normal for thousands of police officers to be patrolling the streets and for scores of Special Operations Command and other police vehicles to be parked all over the city. You may also be wondering if traffic is always really this bad.

Actually, no. Singapore is typically very safe and the police is usually not seen much. Neither will you hear sirens piercing the air every few minutes like in some other cities. And it's uncommon for traffic jams to occur.

Last week, besides the leaders of the 10 ASEAN countries, some of world's top leaders including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese Premier Li Keiqiang, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and United States Vice President Mike Pence were in Singapore for the ASEAN Summit. Hence, the stepped-up security.

The world leaders who came, see this as a fantastic and convenient opportunity to meet at the sidelines of the summit to discuss bilateral issues especially ahead of the APEC Summit which takes place in Papua New Guinea immediately after the ASEAN conference. For example, President Putin met with Japan PM Abe as well as Vice President Pence. President Putin's attendance also allowed him to project Russia's desire to be a global influencer and show their willingness to engage with the region especially in economic matters.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN is a regional intergovernmental organisation made up of 10 countries to promote and facilitate cooperation mainly in trade but also in security matters, education and culture integration and exchange. Meetings at various levels are held regularly with its secretariat located in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Together, ASEAN forms a market of US $2.6 trillion with a population of 622 million people. It is collectively the third largest economy in Asia after China and Japan and seventh largest in the world.

At the moment, the over-arching economic objective for the group is to achieve full economic integration by way of a single market fully connected with the global economy by 2025. Called the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), it is a free trade zone copying the European Union model loosely.

In his opening address as Chairman of ASEAN, a title and responsibility which rotates among the countries every year, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: "The international order is at a turning point. The existing free, open and rules-based multilateral system which has underpinned ASEAN's growth and stability, has come under stress. Countries, including major powers, are resorting to unilateral actions and bilateral deals, and even explicitly repudiating multilateral approaches and institutions."

Unsurprisingly, global trade uncertainties was one of the key subjects discussed at the summit.

However, the main economic topic on the agenda was the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP). Other than the ASEAN countries, this agreement brings together China, Japan South Korea and, also Australia, New Zealand and India.

If completed, the RCEP will be the largest such trade agreement since the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which was implemented in 1948. It will encompass 25 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) of US $25 trillion, 45 per cent of the total population, 30 per cent of global income and 30 per cent of global trade. Many were expecting it to be wrapped up this year but at the summit it was announced that it will be delayed till 2019. Leaders at the summit, however, were quick to emphasise that negotiations are at its final stage.

The pact is seen as vital in securing the region's continued prosperity, especially after a trade war broke out between its vital trading partners, US and China.

Although Prime Minister Modi urged an early conclusion to RCEP talks, it is not clear at this stage what level of commitment India has in participating. The RCEP is a traditional trade pact which cuts tariffs on tradable goods whereas India's strength is in the services sector. India is believed to be holding up for better market access for its professionals and to the services sector than is currently offered.

India also complained that imports to India from ASEAN has grown faster than Indian exports to the bloc. New Delhi is reluctant to cut tariffs and open its markets in the face of strong opposition from its farming as well as steel and textiles industries. The dilemma facing India is exacerbated by the fact that strategic rival China is part of the agreement although China is an important trading partner as well.

On the other hand, ASEAN nations are increasingly investing in India, including in ports, highways, townships and food processing. It was noted at the summit that with the Modi government improving ease of doing business, investment and trade with ASEAN has grown. Despite good progress being made on the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway with an extension to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, ASEAN has called for better maritime, air, land and digital connectivity between ASEAN and India.

With the Indian general elections expected next year, the RCEP negotiations come at a sensitive time for PM Modi.

India is the sixth largest trading partner of ASEAN having signed the India-ASEAN FTA (free trade agreement) in 2010 and bilateral trade is valued at US$80 billion but this is seen by economists as far short of its true potential.

PM Lee of Singapore urged India to be part of RCEP saying: "Together with the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area, we hope that this will help us reach the ASEAN-India trade target of US $200 billion in total trade by 2022."

If India can address its national interests through the on-going talks, the RCEP is a promising vehicle that can help a reluctant India which traditionally shies away from trade pacts, expands its markets through incorporation into a truly open trading bloc.

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