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Rediff.com  » Business » Skipping Asean meet makes government look amateurish

Skipping Asean meet makes government look amateurish

August 28, 2014 13:57 IST

It seems the new government may have become concerned about the services FTA, and, thus, avoided the signing ceremony.

FlagsThe economic ministers of all the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, are assembled in Myanmar. They are there partly to sign a long-expected agreement on free trade in services with India.

This is an agreement that India has long wanted; India’s strength in services will counterbalance the strength of some Asean nations in primary goods and others in manufacturing.

The Asean countries are a net importer of services; India is a net exporter.

Further, Indian services did well out of a trade agreement with Malaysia separate from its free-trade agreement on goods with Asean.

However, the new commerce minister announced early a 'review' of all FTAs, with a view to seeing if further FTAs were desirable.

And it seems the new government may have become concerned about the services FTA, and, thus, avoided the signing ceremony -- although it has suggested 'circulating' the agreement to the Asean members.

It is not certain whether this will be acceptable to Asean, however.

Having just torpedoed world trade talks to protect unsustainably high minimum support prices for agricultural goods, New Delhi should be more worried about sending out anti-trade signals.

Even if the government wished to avoid living up to its international commitments, the manner in which it has ducked its obligations is embarrassing.

The Asean ministers were due to be joined in Myanmar by Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

Instead, at the very last minute, Ms Sitharaman declared that she needed to stay back -- not because there is some domestic crisis that needs her attention, but because of the launch ceremony of a new financial inclusion scheme.

This has given new fuel to those who insist that the Modi government cares more for public-relations occasions, such as launch ceremonies, than the real nuts-and-bolts of reform, such as trade negotiations.

Meanwhile, those Ms Sitharaman was supposed to meet have been left hanging.

They will justifiably point out that the schedule was decided on long ago; that everyone else has domestic commitments, too, which they have worked around; and so on.

The question is that even if the minister is searching for an excuse to postpone a treaty that India really should sign, surely an alibi can be found that does not make the Indian government look disorganised and amateurish?

This is not the first such occasion.

The prime minister himself called off a trip to Japan scheduled at the same time as a Parliament session -- surely something that should have been predicted.

In diplomacy, where questions of national dignity can intrude into the most rational of discussions, such casualness is not in the national interest.

Indeed Mr Modi is due to finally make that trip to Japan soon.

The broad strategic vision he was supposed to take with him is of an India determined to forge strong relationships in the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia.

Instead of this vision, Mr Modi will take with him the aura of a government that cannot spare a minister of state for a few hours to attend a major Southeast Asian conference.

Again, the impact on India’s national interest, and its future security, will not be negligible.

Mr Modi has indicated he will carry on, and intensify, India’s 'Look East' policy.

But this start is hardly inspiring.

BS Bureau in New Delhi
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