Navigating an increasingly polarised world and economic diplomacy should be critical components of India's foreign policy in 2019, according to senior government officials. A top official highlighting economic diplomacy as a key pillar of India’s foreign policy and said there has to be progress on Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Broad-based Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) with the European Union (EU) in 2019.
“We risk losing out economically otherwise. RCEP is reaching its endgame,” he said asking not to be named.
Up to 16 nations including India are a party to negotiations on RCEP. India has been under pressure to conclude negotiations, which have been on for over six years now.
Negotiations could not be concluded at the RCEP ministerial meeting in Singapore in September. Commerce minister Suresh Prabhu said that negotiations would continue in 2019. India has been reluctant to sign the RCEP agreement because of the $104 billion trade deficit with negotiating countries.
The trade deficit with China itself is over $63 billion. Following the ministerial meeting, Prabhu had said that India had managed to convince member nations to liberalise their services market and allow movement of skilled professionals.
India needs to ensure that China walks the talk on market access issues, officials said, adding that there has been unblocking of market access with regard to the export of Indian basmati and non-basmati rice, pharmaceuticals and sugar to some extent.
India would like to see further easing of regulations with regard to Chinese import of soybean and rapeseed oil. India’s political relationship with China had been heightened in 2018 with four meetings between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping, which in itself is unprecedented, a top official privy to the matter said.
Apart from meetings between the two leaders, three Chinese state councillors visited New Delhi. India also resumed military exercises and high-level defence contact with China, which had come to a stop in 2017.
On Indo-US relations, India had imported $3 billion dollar worth of oil and gas from the US in 2018. Officials said this was aimed at bridging the trade deficit and not at winning a waiver from Iran sanctions. They also said that India is currently importing oil from Iran and will take a decision based on the country's economic needs at the end of the six month review period.
India is also looking to increase its trade relations with Russia as it could no longer remain a relationship driven by strong defence ties and big-ticket defence purchases, officials added.
On relations with Pakistan, the country has ruled out any bilateral engagement till general elections in May 2019. According to official sources, Pakistan is yet to act against the terror havens and end ceasefire violations.
Indian officials have refused to see Kartarpur corridor opening as an olive branch as they say this was a cultural initiative, not a diplomatic one. The officials also refused to look too much into the recent release of Indian national Hamid Nihal Ansari from Pakistan prison.
“Hamid Nihal Ansari’s jail term was over. Pakistan had not done us any favor. This cannot be correlated with Kulbhushan Jadhav’s case,” an official told CNBC-TV18.
When asked whether India was optimistic about Jadhav’s return the source said, “There is a hearing at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in a few weeks. Let’s see how the legal process goes. We are not in any way optimistic of progress on his return.”
First Published: IST