The intersessional ministerial meeting among 16 countries to negotiate a mega free trade agreement - Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) - concluded last week with a call to maintain the momentum in the run up to the closure of negotiations by the end of the year.
RCEP negotiators consist of the 10-member ASEAN grouping and its free trade agreement (FTA) partners India, China, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan. While trade and industry ministers from other countries represented the meeting, Indian delegation was led by Commerce Secretary Anup Wadhawan.
In a joint media statement issued after the meeting, the representatives of negotiating countries expressed satisfaction over the progress of RCEP talks and stated that over two thirds of market access negotiations have reached mutually satisfactory outcomes. "Work on remaining areas is being intensified through constructive engagements at all levels," the statement said.
They informed that negotiations on a total of seven chapters and three annexes have already been concluded while remaining chapters or annexes near conclusion. Recently concluded annexes include telecommunication, financial and professional services. Negotiators called for a pragmatic and solution-oriented approach to narrow divergence on various remaining issues.
Ministers said that the conclusion of RCEP in 2019 would be in the region's collective interest and highest priority should be given to conclude a modern, comprehensive, high quality, and mutually beneficial RCEP. They also recognised that trade remains a powerful tool for income and employment generation, productivity and innovation stimulation, and inclusive and sustainable development. The Ministers termed RCEP as the most important trade agenda in the region, supportive of an open, inclusive, and rule-based trading system, and an enabling trade and investment environment. RCEP countries together accounted for 47.4 per cent of the global population, 32.2 per cent of the global economy, 29.1 per cent of the global trade, and 32.5 per cent of global investment flows in 2018.
While India's Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal decided to skip the meeting to assuage feelings of anti-RCEP elements within the ruling party's larger ideological brotherhood, Commerce Secretary Wadhawan, who represented India, emphasised the need for an RCEP agreement that will take care of India's concerns with regard to the huge trade imbalance with China.
In a meeting with Wang Shouwen, Vice Minister of China's Commerce Ministry, on the sidelines of the RCEP intersessional ministerial meeting, Wadhawan emphasised the importance of an RCEP agreement that would duly consider the existing level of trade imbalance. He also used the opportunity to flag bilateral market access-related issues in various categories of products in which discussions are ongoing between India and China. He also emphasised the importance of easing the business visa regime of China for Indian business travellers. The Chinese Vice Minister reaffirmed China's commitment to address these issues, government officials informed.
India is pushing for larger exports of products such as pharmaceuticals, sugar and rice to China. India is also trying to sort out the market access-related issues of various products such as milk and milk products, pomegranate, soyabean meal, okra etc with China. Wadhawan also used the opportunity to flag issues pertaining to Indian service sector including IT and ITeS.
The 7th annual RCEP Ministerial Meeting is scheduled for September 2019 in Bangkok, Thailand.