Ambitious regional economic pact will be richer if India signs up: Iswaran

Mr Iswaran (above, in a file photo) said the RCEP can unite the region and "create the opportunities for our businesses and our people". ST FILE PHOTO

NEW DELHI - Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations S Iswaran said the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) can "bring the region together with a farsighted and high ambition agreement", adding that it would be a loss if India was not part of the pact.

Mr Iswaran was speaking at the Singapore Symposium, which is co-organised by the Institute of South Asian Studies and the Confederation of Indian Industry.

He told the event on Thursday (June 20) that the RCEP can unite the region and "create the opportunities for our businesses and our people".

"And I think efforts like this and many others that have been undertaken, including the CPTPP, which Singapore was a party to, are important at this juncture, in particular, when we see, on the one hand, the rise of anti-gobalisation rhetoric and sentiments and on the other also tensions, in particular, in this case, between say US and China, which is beginning to pose real challenges to the global multilateral trading system and also supply chains that we have come to take for granted," he said.

CPTPP is the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which the United States had withdrawn.

RCEP is a free-trade agreement covering goods, services and investment that is being negotiated between the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and India, China, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan.

The agreement, which involves over 30 per cent of the world's GDP and a quarter of its exports, has been hit by multiple delays.

India, in particular, is concerned that decreasing tariffs for China would lead to Chinese goods flooding the Indian market and widen a trade deficit.

India's trade deficit with China was $51 billion in 2016-17 in favour of China, which doesn't have a free-trade agreement with India. Another area of Indian concern centres on getting greater access for Indian skilled workers in the RCEP countries.

Mr Iswaran, who is on a two-day visit, responded to a question on Indian concerns after his address: "India can ask itself, it is better off inside such an agreement or outside such an agreement from business and also from a geopolitical point of view... if India is not part of it, I think it will be a loss."

Mr Nitin Gadkari, India's minister of road transport and highways and micro, small and medium enterprises, noted that India could take lessons from Singapore: "As the fastest growing economy, it is important for all of us to learn development model of Singapore."

India and Singapore have close economic, political and security ties with regular high-level exchanges. Bilateral trade amounted to $26.4 billion in 2018.

Mr Iswaran noted these close ties and spoke of how the digital economy posed new opportunities for cooperation, particularly in three areas - trade facilitation, fintech or financial technology and emerging technologies.

He suggested trade could be made easier if the two nations linked their respective digital platforms so information can be exchanged more efficiently.

Fintech can be bolstered if the two countries could "revolutionise cross-border instant bank transfers" such as linking India's Immediate Payment Service and Singapore's Fast and Secure Transfer (FAST), which both allow for instant bank transfers.

He also said there was scope for greater dialogue between Singapore and India on regulation of the data for artificial intelligence, machine learning and the Internet of Things.

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