Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar with Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan

The foreign minister said ‘unfair’ market access has created a significant trade deficit between the two nations. He said New Delhi’s involvement in the world’s biggest trade deal would hinge on a mutually equitable arrangement

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Monday criticised China for what he described as one-sided trade policies, casting doubt over the progress of negotiations for a pan-Asian free trade agreement.

Speaking during a panel discussion in Singapore, the minister said India remained sceptical over “unfair” market access and “Chinese protectionist policies” that have created a significant trade deficit between the two nations. India’s trade deficit with China was US$53.6 billion in the financial year that ended earlier in March this year.

“The big concerns of India are of course, one, its relationship with China because we have an enormous trade deficit with China,” Jaishankar said in response to a question regarding the ongoing negotiations for the world’s biggest trade deal, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Negotiators have expressed hope that RCEP – which includes all 10 of Southeast Asia’s ASEAN countries, as well as Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India and China – would be delivered by the end of the year.

While ministers from the 16 participating countries reaffirmed their commitment to reaching a deal this year following negotiations in Bangkok over the weekend, it is unclear whether such a goal will be met.

Jaishankar said he was unsure what was discussed in the latest round of negotiations, but noted that India’s involvement would hinge on a mutually equitable, depoliticised arrangement.

“RCEP at the end of the day is an economic negotiation. It has a strategic implication, but the merits of the RCEP outcome have to be economic,” said Jaishankar.

“It has to be sold for its strength and I think if that was more self-evident to Indians I think you would get clearly a much stronger resonance.”

Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who was also on the panel, urged India to reconsider its position on RCEP, saying that Beijing and New Delhi would have to come to terms on trade eventually.

“I am making the argument that it is worth making the effort, because this would be a game changer,” Balakrishnan said.

The RCEP deal would cover about one-third of the world’s gross domestic product, about 40 per cent of world trade and almost half the world’s population.

China has stressed that it is keen to conclude negotiations by this year, amid the US-China trade war and an ongoing dispute between Japan and South Korea.

Chinese Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua, at a ministerial meeting to discuss the RCEP several weeks ago, called on countries involved to take more flexible positions on market access to help negotiations along.

India has openly opposed the lower tariffs and greater market access for foreign products that would come with the agreement but Anup Wadhawan, the Indian commerce secretary, who attended the meeting in Beijing rejected talk that New Delhi was an obstacle to arriving at a deal.