Australian Trade Minister to visit India this month; to push trade, investment ties

Amiti Sen New Delhi | Updated on February 13, 2020

Simon Birmingham, Australian Trade Minister   -  REUTERS

Will meet Piyush Goyal, likely to discuss RCEP and long-pending CECA

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham will be in India later this month to discuss bilateral trade and investment issues, including the long-pending free trade agreement and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations which India had exited late last year.

“The Australian Minister is scheduled to be in New Delhi on February 24-25 and hold talks with his Indian counterpart Piyush Goyal on trade and investment issues,” an official familiar with the Minister's schedule told BusinessLine.

Australia-India trade has grown steeply over the last decade but it is heavily skewed in Australia’s favour. In 2018-19, India’s imports from the island-nation were valued at $13.3 billion while Australia’s imports from here were only at $3.52 billion resulting in a trade deficit of almost $10 billion.

Birmingham, in his meeting with Goyal, is likely to urge India to re-enter the RCEP negotiations. New Delhi had opted out of the talks in November last as a large number of its concerns, many related to China, were not adequately addressed by other member-countries.

The 16-member proposed bloc includes the 10-member ASEAN, China, Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan and South Korea.

New Delhi’s major concerns with the RCEP included the high levels of market access being sought by other members and inadequate protection against cheap imports from China due to lax Rules of Origin norms. Following India’s exit, several members, including Australia, Japan and New Zealand, have urged it to get back to the negotiating table.

“There have been video-conferences between trade officials from Australia and India on the future of the RCEP talks. During the Australian Minister’s visit, the matter is likely to be discussed in detail,” a Commerce Ministry official said.

India, which is not ready to get back into RCEP negotiations till its concerns are met, wants to explore the possibility of entering into RCEP-like pacts with individual members such as Australia, Japan and South Korea.

“While the possibility of a pact with Australia on the lines of the RCEP has been talked about tentatively in the video-conference, important details such as the level of ambition and the sectors to be included need to be discussed. After the visit of Birmingham, things may get clearer,” the official said.

India and Australia had started negotiating a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) in May 2011, but the talks were suspended in 2015 because of disagreement over issues such as the market access in agriculture and dairy products demanded by Australia.

“Agriculture and dairy products still remain sensitive issues for India and it is doubtful whether it can offer much in the sectors. A future trade deal between India and Australia will depend on how much both sides can compromise,” the official said.

Meanwhile, no fresh date has been fixed yet for the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's visit to the country. He had to postpone his scheduled visit to India in January because of the bush fire crisis in his country.

Published on February 13, 2020

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