India could face stark future outside RCEP: Shanmugam

India's participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is welcomed by Singapore, which is a strong proponent of active Indian engagement in Asean as well as the East Asia Summit.

But if India chooses to stay out of the RCEP, it could face a stark future, Singapore's Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam said at this year's Singapore Symposium, an interactive session held in New Delhi last Saturday evening.

While India and Asean signed a free trade agreement in 2009, India and the 15 other RCEP partner countries have failed to strike a deal since negotiations began in 2012.

The trade pact brings India together with the 10 Asean states, as well as Japan, South Korea, China, Australia and New Zealand. Together, these 16 countries account for nearly half of the world's population and a third of its gross domestic product (GDP).

"Imagine a situation where this huge market I talked about and you are not in. What do you think is your future going to be strategically and economically? Just think about that. It is very stark," he told the audience on the last day of his official visit.

"Unless you think that in this interconnected world you can do it all by yourself, because you will then be at a disadvantage... You are dealing with a centre of gravity of the next 50 years, the centre of economic gravity is the Pacific - the west coast of the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Asean. India is either part of it, or isn't," he said.

But Mr Shanmugam couched his view as an outsider's perspective and not the final word. "To me, it looks important that countries are plugged into this Pacific growth story, but India may well have worked out that if it can't get the terms it wants, then either it is better off out or it has got other options, and India does have other options," he said.

Delhi, which registered trade deficits with 11 RCEP members in 2018-2019, has been reluctant to make deep cuts in tariffs for fear of goods flowing in from other countries, especially China. It has also demanded greater market access for its service professionals. Moreover, there are concerns that Indian farmers would lose market share to products from countries such as Australia and New Zealand that have a strong dairy and agribusiness sector.

Singapore Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam (right) met Indian Home Minister Amit Shah for talks on bilateral and regional issues in New Delhi last Saturday. PHOTO: AMIT SHAH/TWITTER
Singapore Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam (right) met Indian Home Minister Amit Shah for talks on bilateral and regional issues in New Delhi last Saturday. PHOTO: AMIT SHAH/TWITTER

When asked what can be done to assuage India's concerns about joining the trade pact, the Singapore minister suggested the example of other countries that adopted an overall strategic rationale to protect certain industries while opening up others.

"Again, I am not privy to the Indian thinking and it is not something that I can speculate on. But, yes, you have got some of the best civil servants in the world. So, I assume they have thought about all this and there is a definite rationale for doing what they are doing," he said.

He added that while there are countries that would like India to be part of the RCEP, there are also countries that would actually prefer India not to be in it, for economic and other reasons.

"We looked strategically at how things can be stabilised and India's presence is always a stabilising factor. It is useful to have everyone in and everyone has a stake. That is just to make Singapore's perspective clear," said Mr Shanmugam.

At a doorstop later with The Straits Times, he said there is potential for Asean to do business with the three East Asian giants as well as India. "There is a certain logic to the India-Asean relationship - a business logic that impels the relationship."

His visit to India last week came at a time when GDP growth in India has fallen to a six-year low.

Figures released last week showed the economy grew by 5 per cent in the second quarter, down from 5.8 per cent in the previous quarter.

During the interactive session, he also spoke on online extremism and radicalisation, describing them as "extremely serious" threats. He categorised the threats as: falsehoods that affect public interest; hate speech that attack on the basis of race or religion; and foreign agencies or countries that use "a mix of truths, untruths and half-truths" to manipulate public opinion within another country.

Internet platforms had failed to self-regulate, he said, adding that a government must have the right to take down any such content before it causes public harm. "We (the Singapore Government) are very welcoming of the social media platforms, but it is the Government's duty to guarantee the safety and security of the people," he said.

Mr Shanmugam said Singapore's Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, in force for 30 years, has to be updated to meet the needs of the Internet age and that a legislation with proposed changes will be tabled in Parliament today. He also referred to a separate piece of legislation to deal with foreign interference, which, he later told ST during the doorstop, will be tabled in Parliament by the end of this year.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2019, with the headline India could face stark future outside RCEP: Shanmugam. Subscribe