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US briefs India on Trans Pacific Partnership, pushes investment pact

31 October 2015

US officials on Friday briefed Indian commerce minister Nirmala  Sitaraman on the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), an extended trade pact of an original agreement signed among Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore in 2005, which now includes 12 nations, including Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, the United States and Vietnam as well.

The TPP, however, suffers from a serious lack of transparency, even as it threatens to impose more stringent copyright rules without public input, and pressures foreign governments to adopt new laws to facilitate trade.

After the 9th round of US-India Trade Policy Forum (TPF) meeting, which Sitaraman co-chaired with US Trade Representative Mike Froman, the minister said the Indian side is trying to understand the ''contours of TPP,'' although no decision has been taken on joining the block.

The expanded TPP, which now includes some ASEAN nations that are part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), claims to cover about 40 per cent of global commerce and India fears that could lead to diversion of trade from the country.

''We get to know from the US what really are the substantive parts of the TPP,'' she said, adding that she would study the details before making further comments.

Sitharaman said negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an emerging trade pact among 10 ASEAN countries and six countries that have free trade agreements with the bloc, were progressing well.

''If everything goes fine somewhere in 2016 we should be near an agreement,'' she said.

The discussions focused on agriculture, trade and goods and services, investment in manufacturing and intellectual property and both sides ''welcomed the substantive progress in promoting bilateral trade and investment since the last TPF meeting in November 2014.''

Sitaraman said India's willingness to engage on the contentious issue of intellectual property has led to higher US appreciation of its position. ''Indian IPR regime is TRIPS-compliant,'' she said, adding that there were issues that needed to be fixed and the government was doing it with the involvement of all stakeholders.

''We invited their active participation even as we were forming the policy. We invited them to ask any number of questions whether to patents or copyrights. We have not left even one question unanswered. So the readiness to talk, the readiness to answer questions has actually helped to remove any apprehensions that they would have had in their minds,'' Sitharaman said.

The visiting delegation of Indian officials sought and received on Thursday an unscheduled briefing from the Americans on the TPP.

India has been closely following TPP negotiations and the prospect of the US pursuing a similar deal with the European Union, called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which will together 80 per cent of world trade.

Commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who sought the briefing said India cannot afford to be left out of the combined deal, but she categorically denied India was planning to join the trade group. ''At this stage, I wanted to have more information on TPP,'' she said after a meeting of the Trade Policy Forum (TPF) - a joint India-US trade body.

''Committed as we are to the multilateral body WTO, we wanted to be informed on the developments on TPP,'' Sitharaman said.

''It cannot be missed that seven of the members of RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - an ASEAN-led effort to form a free-trade group of 16 Asian countries including India) are party to the TPP.''

India wants to know what exactly it is up against here. ''If just the TPP is taken on board, and if TTIP is also happening soon, most traditional partners of India will be in this or that agreementů so obviously we need to understand its contours,'' she added.

At the TPF, India raised long-standing issues of social security deductions from salaries of Indian temporary workers, visa problems and outsourcing. The US raised concerns about intellectual property rights and greater market access for its companies.

The US government has again pushed India to expedite negotiations on the proposed Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT).

At the Trade Policy Forum (TPF) in Washington on Thursday draft proposals were exchanged, said Sitharaman.

''They (US) wanted us to have a detailed talk on it. The treaty is awaiting cabinet clearance,'' Sitharaman said after the meeting.

The US also expressed concern on control and ownership in the insurance sector. It praised the steps taken by the government of India to raise the limit of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the sector to 49 per cent from 26 per cent earlier.

However, the US says many American insurance firms wish to enter India but want greater ownership and control over business.

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