New Delhi: As Japan continues to push for India to return to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partership, the issue was raised during the ongoing visit of the two senior Japanese ministers for a round of discussions in New Delhi.
Last month, India informed the other 15 members that it will not join RCEP, Asia’s mega free-trade agreement, as it felt that the agreed upon text did not address concerns over market access and non-tariff barriers.
The remaining 15 members closed the text-based negotiations and heralded the next stage of legal scrubbing of the language. The agreement is expected to be signed by mid-2020.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported on November 29 that Japan’s top trade negotiator had stated that Tokyo was “not considering signing a Chinese-backed regional trade pact without India”.
According to the Japanese foreign ministry’s deputy press secretary, Kaifu Atsushi, the RCEP issue was “briefly touched upon” when Japanese foreign minister Motegi Toshimitsu and defence minister Kono Taro made a courtesy call on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday. The two ministers were in town for the first Japan-India Foreign and Defence Ministerial ‘2+2’ meeting and the foreign ministers’ strategic dialogue.
“Prime Minister (Modi) expressed India’s position and we explained our positions, which was reflected in the joint leaders’ statement at the occasion at the RCEP leaders’ summit,” Kaifu told reporters on Sunday.
There had been no mention about RCEP having figured in the talks with the Indian prime minister in the official read-out from the Ministry of External Affairs.
Kaifu was referring to the joint leaders’ statement released on November 4 which noted that India has “significant outstanding issues, which remain unresolved”. “All RCEP participating countries will work together to resolve these outstanding issues in a mutually satisfactory way. India’s final decision will depend on satisfactory resolution of these issues,” said the statement.
Asked for a clarification on the Bloomberg report, the Japanese foreign ministry official did not directly answer the question, asserting that he didn’t want to speculate on how the process will look in the coming weeks and months.
“What I can tell you is my assumption that all the 16 countries are working together to resolve India’s outstanding issues,” he said.
India’s “outstanding issues” had been inadequate protection against an import surge from countries like China, non-tariff barriers and no credible assurances on market access.
The discussions on Saturday were also a prelude to the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for the annual summit this month.
The joint statement issued after the inaugural ‘2+2’ summit had also a substantial paragraph on terrorism, which specifically referred to “terror networks operating out of Pakistan”.
Asked if Kashmir issue had come up in talks, Kaifu stated that there was no “detailed discussion” on this subject.
But he added that Japan is “looking at the situation there very carefully”. Stating that Japan was aware of “long standing difference of views regarding Kashmir”, he added that Tokyo hoped that both countries will resolve their issues through “peaceful dialogue”.
Meanwhile, another neighbouring country, Sri Lanka, also figured in the discussions between the two foreign ministers. “Present newly elected president has just visited India and so the situation in Sri Lanka was common interest of two foreign ministers,” he added.
India and Japan are working on a joint project for developing and operating east container terminal at Colombo port.
The Japanese foreign ministry spokesperson also noted that both countries were not just prioritising connectivity projects abroad, but also within the country. He reminded everyone that Japan was interested in improving connectivity in India’s Northeast. But, he added, “because of current status of that area, we are discussing the issues very carefully”. He was probably referring to sensitivity over China, since Beijing claims the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
On recent remarks emanating from the new Maharashtra government that expressed ambiguity about supporting the bullet train project, Kaifu admitted that he was not aware of the latest developments. “But as far as I know that officers on both sides working closely. I do hope that they are working closely in tackling the challenges in the general and specific ways.”
He also swept aside questions that signature projects like the bullet train have become “stuck”. “Because of the size of the gigantic project, there are in general, usually new or known challenges. We are right now in that process – this is very much common in conducting these projects,” said Kaifu.