India plays hardball on goods tariffs

Ahead of the upcoming RCEP negotiation round in Laos this week, the Indian Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has signified her country’s intention to not reduce tariffs on goods to zero (i.e. tariff reduction, not tariff elimination).

An unnamed government official is quoted in The Hindu BusinessLine saying that the level of tariff reduction India will offer in goods will depend on the quality of offers it receives in services:

So far, offers have been made in over 100 services sub-sectors, but serious offers have not been made in mode 4 which relates to movement professionals and workers. Some kind of bench-marking of offers has to be done in modes, failing which we will not be in a position to be generous in goods.

Indian industry, the article alleges, has suffered as a result of previous trade agreements with Japan and South Korea.

So, is this a move away from a hard-and-fast commitment to free trade? Or is India just engaging in some hard-nose negotiating to ensure that the liberalisation they might expect to see in the future anyway is not traded away for nothing, but instead allows for an increasing flow of cheaper professional and semi-professional migrant worker flows (and a strengthening of the remittance flows that make up around 3-4% of India’s GDP)?