India was absent from two days of talks on a sprawling Asia-Pacific free trade agreement in Indonesia that ended Tuesday, fueling speculation that it may withdraw from the negotiations, an Indonesian senior official said.
India's senior official who normally would have participated in the meeting on Bali Island "didn't get any mandate from his minister (to attend) because his minister didn't get any mandate from (Indian) Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi," Indonesia's chief negotiator Donna Gultom, director of ASEAN Negotiations at the Trade Ministry, told Kyodo News.
She did not elaborate.
The 16 countries involved in talks for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, covering a third of the global economy, began negotiations in 2013 with the initial goal of wrapping them up in 2015, but they have continued to miss deadlines with varying degrees of ambition among the members.
Besides the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, RCEP includes Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
If the free trade area accounting for half of the world's population is put into practice, trade and investment activities among RCEP countries would intensify on the back of measures such as the elimination and reduction of tariffs.
But talks during a summit in Bangkok in November broke down after India, which is concerned that opening up its market would see its trade deficit with China grow, said it no longer wants to participate.
The remaining 15 countries pledged to sign a deal in 2020, but Japan wants India to stay in the negotiations, partly because of its concern that China's influence in the region would be even greater.
Japan has offered to help India resolve the "outstanding issues."
An official of the Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry told Kyodo News that India received an invitation to join the Bali meeting, "but India didn't participate," without giving any reason.
The Bali talks focused on "strategic and outstanding issues," such as seeking solutions on the "India issue" and "market access in good and service trade and investment," according to Iman Pambagyo, director general of international trade negotiations at Indonesia's Trade Ministry.
Iman said the negotiations have been completed substantially, and "therefore the willingness of every country to fully complete the negotiations is needed so a deal can be signed by the end of this year."
He added that the results of the Bali meeting will be reported to an intersessional ministerial meeting of RCEP economic ministers in Danang, Vietnam, on March 10 and 11.
An official of Japan's Ministry of Economic, Trade and Industry shared a similar view saying, "there is no change in Japan's policy to sign RCEP in 2020."