Trade Secrets – Why is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) being negotiated under wraps?

Negotiating trade agreements in secret seems to be the order of the day: whether it is the Trans Pacific Investment Partnership (TPIP) or closer home the RCEP. While all trade agreements in today’s globalised world have a direct or indirect impact on all of us the RCEP should be of greater concern to us since India is a direct party in these negotiations. The RCEP is being negotiated between 16 governments i.e. 10 ASEAN countries and their trading partners Australia, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand. Its significance is akin to the large trade agreements such as the TPIP and Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TATIP). What is disturbing is that even after eight rounds of negotiations very little information is available about this agreement in public domain. While the New Zealand and Australian Governments provide some level of detail about the scope of the agreement the GOI’s Ministry of Commerce website is silent on the scope. Sketchy information on the meetings is the only information available. Why the secrecy? Why the unwillingness for full disclosure?

As reported recently by G. Manicandan of the Forum against FTAs, the RCEP reportedly covers goods, services, investment, economic and technical cooperation, intellectual property, as well as competition and dispute settlement. Manicandan also asserts that the “RCEP proposes liberalization of trade beyond India’s obligation under WTO and existing FTAs with Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand etc. Further, it also proposes India to undertake legally binding obligations on investment and competition law and do away with public interest safeguards in intellectual property law such as Patents Act and Copyrights Act”.

Given the potential impact of such an agreement on the environment, livelihoods and lives of people in the negotiating countries it is only fair that we ask whether an environmental and social impact assessment was done for the RCEP. There is no evidence of such an assessment having been done for an agreement of this magnitude. Farmers unions and civil society in India have registered their protests against the RCEP but what is critical is that we demand a detailed impact assessment. We have a precedence for this in the impact assessment that was done for the EU-India FTA. Many civil society organisations in India participated in this assessment which warned of serious violations of the right to food, dairy and poultry farmers, street vendors and others. The impact of the RCEP could be much larger given that “it proposes liberalisation of trade beyond India’s obligations under the WTO”. What will the impact be on our ecosystems, on the health of our soils, forests, air and water? How will the RCEP affect the agrarian crisis and rampant malnutrition? There is an urgent need to demand for an impact assessment. The myriad ‘distractions’ in the form of Parliament disruption, obsession of the media and political parties with the IPL scam have successfully allowed these negotiations to go ahead without scrutiny. One wonders if this is the plan!

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