RCEP Trade Ministers want to sign in November but still hoping India may re-join

August 31, 2020: The official statement from the on-line meeting on August 27 of 15 Trade Ministers negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership said that they were "pleased with the significant progress made towards finalizing the RCEP Agreement for signing at the fourth RCEP Summit in November 2020,” and that “the RCEP remains open for India”.

The Japan Times reported that a Japanese official who attended the talks told reporters: “There were no discussions today about (the scenario for signing a deal) with or without India, we confirmed that each country will make its own efforts in getting India back to the talks.”

The RCEP brings together China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the 10 ASEAN countries. India pulled out in November 2019, after taking part in the talks since their inception in 2012.

Australia and New Zealand are the only nations out of the 15 which do not have an FTA with India, and have little in market access to gain from an RCEP without India.

Supporters of the deal argue that the massive economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the RCEP countries is a motivator for signing anything that might increase business confidence and accelerate any possible economic recovery. However, the sudden resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for health reasons, removes one of the main leaders pushing for India to return to the RCEP.

So far India has not shown signs of returning to the deal. On August 8, 2020, the Indian Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar said, "It’s very important not to get into false choices. Proponents of [free trade agreements] make out as [if] that is the only vehicle to engage the world and if you missed out on RCEP, somehow you are missing out on something very big in the world. I am not sure that’s actually an accurate assessment of RCEP or indeed of FTAs.”

The Indian withdrawal from the RCEP followed strong protests from health workers, trade unions and women, environmentalists and small farmers, converging with anxiety over Chinese imports from Indian manufacturers and central government concerns at the prospect of an overall negative economic impact.