As Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed under a pale grey sky in Thailand’s capital on Saturday afternoon, India made it clear that addressing its concerns over “unsustainable trade deficits” and its demands over access to the “services sector” holds the key for it to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement.
RCEP is an umbrella trade agreement involving 16 countries, which include 10 ASEAN countries and China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India. Once concluded, this promises to be the biggest free-trade zone in the world.
Sources told The Sunday Express that while 25 chapters (each deals with a category of products/ issues) are being negotiated, 21 of them have been finalised. “Only four chapters are now open for negotiations,” a source told The Sunday Express.
India’s negotiating position was articulated by Modi, in an interview published in Thailand’s leading daily, Bangkok Post, on Saturday where he said, “India remains committed to a comprehensive and balanced outcome from the ongoing RCEP negotiations. Their successful conclusion is in the interest of everyone involved. Hence, India seeks balance across goods, services and investments, and also within each pillar.”
“We recognise the high ambitions of our partners on goods. We too would like a win-win outcome. We believe that for this, addressing our concerns over unsustainable trade deficits is important. It needs to be recognised that opening the vast Indian market must be matched by openings in some areas where our businesses can also benefit,” he told Bangkok Post.
“We have put forward reasonable proposals in a clear manner and are engaged in negotiations with sincerity. We would like to see commensurate levels of ambition on services from many of our partners, even as we are ready to address their sensitivities. Overall, we are clear that a mutually beneficial RCEP, in which all sides gain reasonably, is in the interests of India and of all partners in the negotiation,” he said.
Modi’s emphasis on “goods, services and investments” underlines the importance Delhi has given to the overall package. India’s strength in the services sector is something Delhi wants to leverage on.
Modi, who will attend the 16th ASEAN-India Summit, the 14th East Asia Summit and the third summit meeting of RCEP, will also participate in several discussions with world leaders of the region, including a lunch discussion with host, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
This will be Modi’s seventh ASEAN-India Summit and sixth East Asia Summit. In January last year, India had hosted the 25th Anniversary Commemorative Summit of Indo-ASEAN, in which all the 10 ASEAN leaders had participated. Again, in November last year, Modi had, in Singapore, held an Informal India-ASEAN Summit along with the ASEAN leaders.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison are likely to attend the summit meetings, while US National Security Adviser Robert C O’Brien and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will represent the US.
The leaders are expected to adopt and issue as many as 21 declarations and documents, including the Joint Statement on the Reaffirmation of the Commitment to Advancing the Rights of the Child in ASEAN, and the Best Practices and Non-Binding Guidelines for Cooperative Activities on Marine Environmental Protection in the South China Sea.
Chinese Premier Li, who wrote an opinion piece in the Bangkok Post on Saturday, said, “Last year, I proposed that we conclude the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) in three years’ time by the end of 2021, drawing a positive response from various parties. The first reading of the single draft negotiating text for the COC has been completed ahead of schedule and the second reading has kicked off smoothly. Through dialogue and consultation, we are confident that China and ASEAN countries will deliver a substantive, high quality and effective document based on the realities of our region, take forward rule-making in our region, and make the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.”
The closing ceremony and the handing over of the ASEAN chairmanship to Vietnam will take place on Monday. However, Thailand will continue to serve as chairman until the end of the year.
On Sunday, Modi will attend the 16th India-ASEAN summit, and hold bilateral meetings with Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
Meanwhile, the Rohingya Association, Thailand, has called on the leaders of ASEAN member states and the government of Myanmar to ensure the safety of their compatriots — those who are still in Rakhine State, and the tens of thousands of refugees who have already fled.
In a statement, the association asked the governments of ASEAN members to verify and document Rohingya migrants so they can live and work in their host countries legally; and to consider granting permanent residence status to Rohingya who live for extended periods in ASEAN member states and are not willing to return to Myanmar.