Last month, 15 Asia-Pacific countries formed the world’s largest trading bloc. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is China’s response to the US jettisoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) under President Donald Trump. The deal excludes both India and the US. Though the RCEP is not as comprehensive as the TPP and does not cut tariffs to the same degree, its members comprise a third of the world’s population and of the global GDP. Given international attention on Xinjiang and Hong Kong, pulling off the RCEP is a major feather in China’s cap.
Is India Missing the Boat?
Many blame India for not joining the RCEP, suggesting it is missing out on access to a big market. Indian policymakers take a different view. They realize that countries like South Korea, Vietnam and China have terrific manufacturing capabilities. Opening markets to their goods could damage India’s industry. India could risk that blow if it could sell services to manufacturing powerhouses and earn a net benefit in the process. However, the RCEP focuses on goods, not services, giving India little incentive to sign on.
In the past, free trade agreements with Asian economies have yielded limited benefits in terms of economic growth, increased investment or geopolitical heft. Instead, they have led to a surge of cheap imports that have decimated India’s inefficient domestic industry. India’s goal is to make its industry more efficient instead of deindustrializing prematurely.
In Asia, a New Kid on the Trade Bloc
While many experts and much of the media predict doom and gloom in a post-RCEP world, both foreign direct investment (FDI) and foreign portfolio investment (FPI) are flooding into India. The country received a record-high FDI of $35.37 billion in the first five months of India’s fiscal year starting on April 1. The November FPI of $8.5 billion exceeds FPI inflows of the past two years combined. Clearly, investors envisage a different reality than the pessimists.
The pessimistic outlook on India in the post-RCEP world comes from the fact that India missed the free-trade boat earlier and stagnated in the 1970s. Starting in 1969, India lurched to hard-line socialism under Indira Gandhi, the daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. She began by nationalizing 14 of the largest private banks in the country. After her reelection in 1971, Gandhi nationalized the coal, steel, copper, refining, cotton textiles and insurance industries.
Apart from going on a nationalization spree, Gandhi gave unbridled power to bureaucrats, who strangled businesses with red tape. She championed public sector behemoths that turned out to be corrupt, inefficient and uncompetitive. Arguably, she did more to destroy private industry than 190 years of British rule.
Silver Linings to Staying Out
There are key differences between the 1970s and today. Indian conglomerates such as Reliance Industries and Adani Enterprises have their flaws, but they are not as inefficient as the public sector. In the services sector, India has managed to provide for American and even European markets. Doing business is much easier than in the 1970s because the political elite and the colonial bureaucracy are not as capricious, arbitrary and toxic to private enterprise. So, staying out of RCEP is unlikely to lead to a 1970s-style stagnation.
There is another tiny little matter. Many economists are blinded by the dogma of free trade. As one of the authors has argued in the past, trade invariably produces winners and losers. Recent press reports reveal that Hershey used financial instruments called futures to squeeze cocoa farmers in West Africa. This is part of a centuries-long pattern. Trade has not necessarily proven to be good to countries exporting commodities from Ghana to Bolivia. On the other hand, countries such as South Korea, Vietnam and, above all, China, that have industrialized, developed technologies and moved up the value chain have done quite well out of trade.
The US itself became a major industrial power through a policy of protectionism. Alexander Hamilton took the view that economic independence was as essential as political independence. The US Congress’s first piece of legislation was the Tariff Act of July 4, 1789, which protected American infant industries from ruinous British competition. Many others, including East Asian tigers, emulated American industrial policy.
There is a strong argument to be made that India’s economic failure came not from protectionism but socialism. By giving colonial bureaucrats the commanding heights of the economy, Nehru and his daughter cut India off at its knees. Economic liberalization in 1991 unleashed growth, but competition from East Asia prematurely deindustrialized India, robbing it of productivity growth.
Badly burnt, Indian policymakers are trying something different. Like South Korea in the past, India is favoring its own version of chaebols. The country is embarking on an indigenous form of protectionism, so the RCEP is not on the cards. Furthermore, thanks to fear of both China and Pakistan, India has thrown in its lot with the US. Just as the country once traded preferentially with the Soviet Union, India now aims to do so with its new ally. Already, India exports services and people to the US and gets revenue and capital in return.
The RCEP, as it stands, has little upside for India. Besides, some of its members like China and Australia have increasingly fraught relations with each other. Key details of the RCEP are yet to be worked out, and reality might turn out to be very different from the hype. Doomsayers damning India might not quite be right. Staying out of the RCEP could well turn out to be wise.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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