India is not ready to respond any time soon to the offer made by the 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to rejoin the free trade negotiations on much easier terms than before, especially as its industry and farmers are struggling to cope with the Covid-19 crisis, according to officials.

Uncertain phase

“RCEP members such as Japan and Australia have been trying to convince India to return to the negotiating table over the past few weeks. However, New Delhi is clear that this is not the right time to respond with both the domestic and global economy going through an uncertain phase due to the continuing pandemic” an official aware of the developments told BusinessLine .

New Delhi made its intention clear that it cannot be rushed into reconsidering its position on RCEPby refusing to allow the regional group to be mentioned during the recent virtual summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison.

“The Commerce Ministry and the MEA were both sure that there should be no mention of revival in RCEP negotiations for India at the India-Australia summit. India took up the matter seriously with Australia and there was no significant mention of the bloc in the entire summit,” the official added.

India walked out of the RCEP negotiations — which include the ten-member ASEAN, China, South Korea and New Zealand, apart from Japan and Australia — in November 2019. Indian industry and farmers were apprehensive that markets would be flooded with cheap manufactured products from China and farm and dairy products from Australia and New Zealand, if import duties were lowered or brought down to zero.

Last month, the RCEP countries sent India a proposal to rejoin the talks on much easier terms than before. Officials from some member countries met Commerce Ministry officials to explain that India need not take any commitments on market access at the moment if it was uncomfortable and could defer a decision while agreeing to other aspects of the free trade pact such as investments, e-commerce and intellectual property.

No dialogue now

“Although India has been offered the option of deferring decisions in market access, it would have to take on commitments sooner or later. It can get back to the negotiations only when there is an agreement among all stakeholders on the commitments it is ready to take. There is no scope for holding such dialogues at the moment,” the official said.

The RCEP, once completed, could be the largest trading bloc in the world, accounting for 45 per cent of the world’s population and 40 per cent of world trade.

All members of the RCEP, with the exception of India, are ready to implement the agreement by 2021.