New Delhi has insisted that, in exchange for signing the trade facilitation agreement, it must see more progress on a parallel pact giving it more freedom to subsidise and stockpile food grains than is allowed by World Trade Organization rules.
Diplomats have been taken aback by India’s threat to veto trade facilitation, a deal that aims to speed trade by standardising customs rules and slashing red-tape.
The WTO deal must be signed in Geneva on Thursday, and India’s ultimatum has revived doubts about the future of the WTO as a negotiating body.
“I am an optimist, I am hopeful that within the period of today…there is a common ground that is found,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, accompanying Secretary of State John Kerry at annual strategic talks with India, told NDTV.
India’s new nationalist government has demanded a halt to a globally agreed timetable on new customs rules and said a permanent agreement on food stockpiling and subsidies aimed at supporting the poor must be in place at the same time, well ahead of a 2017 target agreed last December in Bali.
Kerry, whose visit to India was aimed at revitalising bilateral ties but has been overshadowed by the standoff, warned his hosts that they stood to lose if they refused to budge.
“Right now India has a four-year window where it’s been given a safe harbour where nothing happens,” he told NDTV.
“If they don’t sign up and be part of the agreement, they will lose that and then (they will) be out of line or out of the compliance with the WTO.”
Diplomats say India could technically trigger a trade dispute if it caused the deal to collapse, although nobody wanted to threaten legal action at this stage.
Supporters of the agreement say it could add $1 trillion to the global economy and create 21 million jobs.
As officials in Geneva scrambled to rescue the agreement, Trade Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said New Delhi’s position remained unchanged.
An Indian government source added separately that the Bali deal need not collapse even if the July 31 deadline is not met.
But several diplomats said New Delhi’s stance could derail the whole process of world trade liberalisation, leading some WTO nations to discuss a last-ditch plan to exclude India from the agreement.
“If India does end up blocking (on Thursday) there is already a group of members who are interested in pursuing that path,” a source involved in the discussions said.
“A dozen or so” of the WTO’s 160 members had informally discussed pushing ahead with the trade facilitation agreement with less than 100 percent participation, the source said. – Reuters