India will not join RCEP trade deal in blow to sprawling Asian pact

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with China's Premier Li Keqiang. (AFP)
Updated 04 November 2019

India will not join RCEP trade deal in blow to sprawling Asian pact

  • India dug in over concerns about market access, fearing its domestic industries would be hit hard if the country was flooded by cheap Made-in-China goods

BANGKOK: India said Monday it would not join a sprawling Asian trade pact, dealing a blow to the China-backed deal at the end of a Bangkok summit held against a backdrop of global growth fears.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was meant to account for 30 percent of global GDP and loop in half of the world’s people.
But India dug in over concerns about market access, fearing its domestic industries would be hit hard if the country was flooded by cheap Made-in-China goods.
“We have conveyed to the participating countries that we will not be joining the RCEP,” Vijay Thakur Singh, a senior diplomat in charge of East Asia for India’s foreign ministry, told reporters.
“Our decision was guided by the impact this agreement will have on the ordinary human beings of India and livelihood of people, including the poorest of the poor,” she said.
The 11th-hour pullout comes after days of late-running negotiations at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which closed Monday.
The meeting was dominated by trade issues — with RCEP front and center — backlit by the crippling US-China tariff war.
India’s decision is seen as a blow to the deal, which now includes all 10 ASEAN states plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand — notably excluding the United States.
The remaining members are aiming to sign it next year after reviewing an agreed draft text.
The news came after a full day of meetings at the summit, attended by the leaders of Japan, South Korea, and India, along with China’s premier.
Some leaders pushed back against protectionism amid fears Trump’s trade war with China could slow global growth to the lowest rate in a decade, according to an International Monetary Fund prediction.
“We need to protect the free-trade order... and bring the global economy back on track,” said South Korean leader Moon Jae-in.
The US-China spat has seen the two sides swap tariffs on billions of dollars worth of goods, though they have agreed to roll back some of the measures with a “first phase” deal that could be soon signed.
Notably absent from the Bangkok talks were any top US officials — Washington sent Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien in lieu of President Donald Trump.
That decision raised diplomatic eyebrows and appeared to prompt several Southeast Asian leaders to skip a meeting with US officials on Monday.
Just three leaders from the 10-member ASEAN bloc showed up to the session, along with a host of foreign ministers.
But O’Brien, Trump’s special envoy to ASEAN, shrugged off the apparent snub, describing “excellent conversations” with leaders.
“I was treated generously,” he told reporters.
O’Brien earlier read a letter from Trump inviting “the leaders of ASEAN to join me in the United States for a special summit” in the first three months of next year.
Trump attended the 2017 summit in Singapore and Vice President Mike Pence attended last year’s event in Manila.
But the Republican president could not come this year because he was busy with campaign events back home, a senior White House official said.
Trump’s administration is accused of retreating from Asia after he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — slated to be the world’s largest trade pact before the withdrawal.
The US leader has said he wants to pursue bilateral agreements over free trade accords to narrow trade gaps in the region — part of his “America First” clarion call.
Thailand handed over the ASEAN chair to Vietnam, where the RCEP deal could finally be signed, after years of gruelling negotiations.
A senior trade diplomat with knowledge of the negotiations said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not budge because he was under domestic pressure.
But the source held out the option that New Delhi could join at a “later date” even after it is signed — if outstanding issues are resolved.
China’s deputy foreign minister Le Yucheng echoed the view.
“Whenever India is ready, it is welcome to get on board,” he said before Delhi confirmed its pullout.
Analyst Deborah Elms said the deal shows a commitment to “stabilising trade in the region at a time of growing uncertainty.”
But “India will never get a better deal from the members than what they have already managed,” said Elms, director of the Asian Trade Center.


Dubai counts on pent-up demand for tourism return

Updated 11 July 2020

Dubai counts on pent-up demand for tourism return

DUBAI: After a painful four-month tourism shutdown that ended this week, Dubai is betting pent-up demand will see the industry quickly bounce back, billing itself as a safe destination with the resources to ward off coronavirus.

The emirate, which had more than 16.7 million visitors last year, opened its doors to tourists despite global travel restrictions and the onset of the scorching Gulf summer in the hopes the sector will reboot before high season begins in the last quarter of 2020.

Embarking from Emirates flights, where cabin crew work in gowns and face shields, the first visitors arrived on Tuesday to be greeted by temperature checks and nasal swabs, in a city better known for skyscrapers, luxury resorts and over-the-top attractions.

Tourism chief Helal Al-Marri said that people may still be reluctant to travel right now, but that data shows they are already looking at destinations and preparing to come out of their shells.

“When you look at the indicators, and who is trying to buy travel, 10 weeks ago, six weeks ago and today look extremely different,” he said in an interview.

“People were worried (but) people today are really searching heavily for their next holiday and that is a very positive sign and I see a very strong comeback.”

The crisis crushed Dubai’s goal to push arrivals to 20 million this year and forced flag carrier Emirates, the largest airline in the Middle East, to cut its sprawling network and lay off an undisclosed number of staff.

But Al-Marri, director-general of Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, said that unlike the gloom after the 2008 global financial crisis, the downturn is a one-off “shock event.”

“Once we do get to the other side, as we start to talk about next year and later on, we see very much a quick uptick. Because once things normalize, people will go back to travel again,” he said.

The reopening comes as the UAE battles stubbornly high coronavirus infection rates that have climbed to more than 53,500 with 328 deaths.

And as swathes of the world emerge from lockdown, for many travelers their holiday wish lists have shifted from free breakfasts and room upgrades to more pressing issues like hotel sanitation and hospital capacity.

With its advanced medical facilities and infrastructure, Dubai is betting it will be an attractive option for tourists.

“The first thing I’m thinking is — how is the health-care system, do they have it under control? Do I trust the government there?” Al-Marri said. “Yes they expect the airline to have precautionary measures, they expect it at the airport. But are they going to a city where everything from the taxi, to the restaurant, to the mall, to the beach has these measures in place?”

Tourists arriving in Dubai are required to present a negative test result taken within four days of the flight. If not, they can take the test on arrival, but must self-isolate until they receive the all-clear.

While social distancing and face masks are widely enforced, many restaurants and attractions have reopened with business as usual, even if wait staff wear protective gear and menus have been replaced with QR codes.

“When it comes to Dubai, I think it’s really great to see the fun returning to the city. As you’ve seen, everything’s opened up,” Al-Marri said.