India’s RCEP move clashes with joint statement, creates confusion

Amiti Sen New Delhi | Updated on November 05, 2019

Partner countries want to know if India would continue to negotiate as the joint statement suggested

India’s decision to exit the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement it has been negotiating with fifteen others including the ASEAN bloc and China has been lauded by the industry and farmers. But what is puzzling is the joint statement issued by all 16 countries, including India, which tells a different story.

After the conclusion of the RCEP Leaders Summit on Monday in Bangkok attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a press conference was called by the Ministry of External Affairs where Secretary (East), Vijay Thakur Singh, categorically stated that India had decided to quit the RCEP agreement as its concerns had not been resolved.

Also read: India refuses to sign up for RCEP; says its core concerns remain unresolved

When a journalist asked the Secretary if India would continue to negotiate with other members to get its concerns resolved, she replied that the country had informed the RCEP members that it had exited the agreement. RCEP members include the ten-member ASEAN, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Also read: RCEP negotiations: India must make its position transparent

The MEA briefing was crisp and to-the-point, but it contradicted the joint statement issued by the sixteen leaders, including Modi, just minutes before. As per the statement, while fifteen members (not counting India) had endorsed the conclusion of negotiations, India’s concerns on some issues remained which would be addressed through bilateral consultations.

“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,” the statement said.

The difference between the MEA briefing on RCEP and the contents of the statement left many member countries puzzled. “Something is wrong. The briefing by India’s MEA does not seem to reflect what has been agreed to in the joint statement. Everyone is very confused. We don’t know if India would continue to negotiate bilaterally as decided in the statement,” a diplomat from a RCEP country which is friendly towards India told BusinessLine.

Despite the MEA’s statement, one negotiator from the Indian team contacted by BusinessLine was not very sure whether India would actually stop future negotiations as the joint statement still kept the door open for the country.

The situation makes one wonder whether the confusion was because of a clash of opinions between the Commerce Ministry and Ministry of External Affairs on the RCEP negotiations. If that was so, then the two should have settled their differences before the Bangkok meet. However, if there is another explanation behind the contradictory stands, one would certainly want to know more about it.

India raising ‘last-minute’ issues to protect its vulnerable groups is something that could be accepted as well as appreciated by most, but creating confusion by acting irresponsibly is certainly avoidable at a global platform.

Published on November 05, 2019

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