Asean must not give up on India ... yet
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is flying to New Delhi next week to meet up with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His mission is to convince India to take up the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), for which negotiations were last month completed in Bangkok after seven years. In the wee hours before the official announcement on Nov 4, Mr Modi told Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha that he would personally like very much to sign the pact but India was not yet ready, reiterating that further consultations were still required at home at this crucial juncture. The Asean chair, Thailand, accommodated India's request.
The last paragraph of the joint statement of the RCEP was added following India's request. It says: "India has significant outstanding issues, which remain unresolved. All RCEP Participating Countries will work together to resolve these outstanding issues in a mutually satisfactory way. India's final decision will depend on satisfactory resolution of these issues."
But the damage was done -- global news headlines were quick to give India a black eye, jumping to the conclusion that India had opted out of the RCEP deal. Indeed, the joint statement of the RCEP was also misleading, stating in the fifth paragraph: "We noted 15 RCEP Participating Countries have concluded text-based negotiations for all 20 chapters and essentially all their market access issues; and tasked legal scrubbing by them to commence for signing in 2020."
It failed to stress that actually all 16 RCEP countries, including India, worked together to complete all chapters. India was only dissatisfied over some minor technical issues related to the investment sector. Other issues, such as an automatic trigger safeguard mechanism, which was highlighted by the media, have long been agreed.
In the next 11 months, India will have sufficient time to make the do-or-die decision whether to join the world's largest free-trade arrangement. Therefore, the other 15 RCEP members, especially Asean countries, must be patient and must not at this moment cut off India. Both sides still need to work out further compromises. For the time being there is no meeting scheduled except for the legal scrubbing team to clean up the agreement.
Obviously, some Asean members were suffering from severe "India fatigue" -- longstanding frustrations emanating from negotiating with India without tangible results -- and were ready to go ahead with the RCEP minus India. It is an open secret that the Asean members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) are proud of their high-end free-trade arrangement.
Truth be told, the Thai chair, which was not a member of the CPTPP, was a bit timid vis-a-vis other Asean colleagues with freer trade regimes. At times, Thailand was excellent in bridging gaps between developed and developing members as well as Asean and non-Asean members.
However, the Asean chair from time to time was outmanoeuvred by certain Asean colleagues in pushing back and distancing a reluctant India. It is hoped that the incoming chair, Vietnam, a key CPTPP member, will be able to maintain the course and engage India more positively.
No wonder, of late, the question was being raised about Japan's latest position on the RCEP that linked up with India. Bloomberg late last month quoted a senior official from Japan's Trade and Industry Ministry saying that Japan would not join the RCEP if India did not do so. That possibility was immediately denied by Tokyo, which has been trying to loop in New Delhi. Such efforts are ongoing since Mr Abe's return as prime minister in 2012. From the Japanese perspective, an RCEP without India would damage the balance of both economic and political power within the region. And worse still, the Asean-led mechanism and its centrality.
Japan and India have intrinsic ties as they are both "strategic" and "global" partners that share similar norms and values -- displaying the two countries' ambition to play global roles. Doubtless, Tokyo will do everything it can, including providing long-term assistance in capacity-building in all sectors that would increase New Delhi's competitive edge in exports and lessen protectionist sentiments.
Without India in the region's free-trade pact, its profile will be further tarnished. For Asean, India's Act East Policy will remain mere rhetoric after years of waiting to see tangible action. There was a sense of deja vu when all Asean leaders attended India's Independence Day last January and held a special summit to discuss future Asean-India relations. The Asean leaders have invested in Mr Modi's leadership as never before, hoping that India will open up and become more dynamic. Furthermore, India's much-vaunted Indo-Pacific strategy would also be adversely affected by the imperative of Asean centrality. The grouping's hope to see India as a countervailing force in major power competition in the region will remain a pipe dream.
Mr Modi needs to look beyond the home front to fast-changing East Asia, of which it is considered an active member. Missing out on the RCEP will disrupt economic development and progress not only in India and South Asia but in broader East Asia as well. India's lack of competitiveness in exports could be remedied if serious reforms are undertaken. Domestic constraints could be addressed given Mr Modi's popularity after winning a second term in May. He can still make necessary painful decisions.
In the event that India misses the RCEP signing ceremony next year in Hanoi, it is nearly impossible to envisage the world's largest democracy stepping in later. India has a long and proud diplomatic history of courage and independence. India can only be among the 16 founding members now or never.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs