The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement which was signed on Sunday has been rightly hailed as a boost for free trade and Asian economic integration. However, many of its 15 signatories - which comprised the 10 members of Asean, plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand - would concur that the absence from the RCEP of Asia's third-largest economy, India, somewhat dilutes the scope and potential impact of the agreement. India pulled out of the RCEP in November last year, saying that many of its concerns were not met. These included a lack of protection against potential surges of imports; inadequate transparency relating to the use of government subsidies; rules of origin, which are unrelated to value-addition; and a weak chapter on exports of services, in which India enjoys competitive advantages.
Since pulling out of the agreement, India has doubled down on its position. At a recent business forum, India's External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar pointed out that India has mistakenly "allowed subsidised products and unfair production advantages from abroad to prevail". Without naming the RCEP or any specific country, he added that those who cited the benefits of openness and efficiency did not present the full picture - which in practice includes non-tariff barriers, subsidies and state capitalism. Many read this as an oblique reference to China. India's troubled relationship with China following recent border clashes between the two had no doubt reinforced its opposition to joining the RCEP, which it views as a primarily China-driven trade grouping.