Australia’s Trade Minister Simon Birmingham Thursday downplayed tensions in the country’s relations with India, a week after escalating a discord with New Delhi with over sugar subsidies by formally referring the issue to the World Trade Organisation. While admitting that the negotiations between the two sides on the proposed Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) were “proving to be challenging”, Birmingham refused to rule out the bilateral pact completely but said that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) offered a fresh opportunity to pursue trade engagements on a broader Indo-Pacific level.
On November 12 in Singapore, representatives of the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership postponed the year-end target for reaching a “substantial conclusion” to the free trade deal.
“WTO disputes between friendly nations is not uncommon. But the bigger picture of the (bilateral) relationship has to be kept in mind,” Birmingham, in response to a question on Australia’s move to refer India to the WTO over the sugar subsidy issue, said at the sidelines of the Australian Financial Review India Business Summit 2018 here. Birmingham pointed to Australia’s WTO dispute with Canada over tariffs over wine but said that it had not impacted the bilateral relationship between the two countries.
On Friday, Australia had submitted a ‘counter-notification’ to the WTO that is expected to be discussed by the Committee on Agriculture on November 26 in Geneva. The next step would be a formal dispute action. The minister said that Canberra was working with India on reaching “a resolution” on the issue.
The Australian minister said that there was the need to broad base trade engagement between the two countries, given that just one item — coking coal — accounts for over 50 per cent of Australia’s overall exports to India. He said that in the last decade, almond exports from Australia to India have seen a five-fold increase and that items such as these showcased the opportunity for diversifying the trade basket.
“India offers Australian business more potential growth opportunities over the next 20 years than any other single market,” Birmingham said.
(The writer is in Australia on a trip organised by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia)