Negotiations between India and Australia on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) are in a “slow period” currently and it is quite understandable as both the countries are heading into general elections, said Australian High Commissioner Harinder Sidhu in New Delhi on Wednesday.
While releasing the report titled ‘An India Economic Strategy to 2035’, Sidhu said: “We are going through that process right now, the CECA, and it is never a steady pace. These things move quickly for a while and then they slow down and then they move again. We are just in a slow period at the moment. It is quite understandable, India is going into an election and Australia is going into election. We expect some slowing down in these kinds of arrangements.”
The report has been authored by Peter Varghese, Chancellor, University of Queensland, who was the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia from 2012 to 2016 and served as High Commissioner to India prior to that. In May last year, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sought an independent report from Varghese to “help transform Australia’s relationship with India”.
Sidhu said: “If anyone has seen a draft of bilateral trade agreement, it is very fat and it is very complex document. And so, they do take time to conclude. Often, you reach a point in bilateral trade negotiations, and even in multilateral trade negotiations, where it actually becomes politically challenging to cross a line. So, invariably, those things get resolved through lots of discussions and negotiations and they do need to give a political licence to negotiators to go beyond a certain point.”
She added: “I have already expressed by commitment to have a CECA with India. But a network of bilateral arrangements will only take us so far. We need to continue to work together to ensure that vital pieces of trade architecture are in place. RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) and TPP (Trade Pacific Partnership) will deepen economic integration and will also ensure fairness so that all member countries can stand on equal footing.” The TPP is a defunct proposed trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the US.
Australia and India have been negotiating a bilateral free trade agreement — termed the CECA — since 2011. The RCEP negotiations were launched in November 2012 by leaders of 10 ASEAN Member States (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) and 6 ASEAN FTA partners (Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand) during the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Talking about RCEP, Sidhu said: “It is very pleasing to see that India continues to be a part of RCEP negotiations. RCEP is extremely important strategically and economically to my mind because it will integrate the economies of Indo-pacific. An agreement that has India and China and all ASEAN countries in it is an incredibly powerful tool … We are really looking forward for this agreement to fall in place so that all the participating countries have a level playing field economically.”
Interestingly, the report stated that the negotiating positions of India and Australia on CECA “are too far apart” for its conclusion to be a realistic objective in the near term. The report stated that Australia should prioritise trade negotiations with India in RCEP and return to bilateral trade negotiations once an RCEP deal is concluded.