Department of Commerce holds Chintan Shivir on FTA Strategy and SOP for Trade Negotiations

Department of Commerce, Ministry of Commerce and Industry in collaboration with Centre for Trade and Investment Law (CTIL), Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi organised a Chintan Shivir on Free Trade Agreement Strategy and SOP for Trade Negotiations from 16 to 17 May 2024 at Neemrana, Rajasthan.

The Two-Day Chintan Shivir facilitated discussions on various issues related to negotiations of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) by India, its position and strategy that should be adopted for such negotiations. The attendees also deliberated on standard operating procedures (SoP) for FTA negotiations, capacity building and resource management for trade negotiations as well as certain contemporary issues under modern FTAs such as labour, environment, gender etc.

Commerce Secretary, Shri Sunil Barthwal spearheaded the Chintan Shivir, seeking to chart a strategic course for India’s future engagement in FTA negotiations. The program drew active participation of senior government officials involved in India’s FTA negotiations from various Ministries, Departments, and Agencies of Government of India. Eminent speakers at the event included former senior officials of the Government of India, esteemed national and international experts in FTA negotiations, venerable academicians, and seasoned legal professionals. Their presentations were embellished with invaluable insights, enriching the discourse with profound expertise and depth of knowledge.

The Chintan Shivir unfolded across six dynamic sessions and one roundtable, each delving into critical themes: (1) Economic Assessment and Modelling of FTAs; (2) Addressing New Disciplines into FTAs such as Labour, Environment, Gender, Indigenous Peoples, etc.; (3) Services and Digital Trade in FTAs; (4) Standard Operating Procedures for FTA Negotiations including Stakeholder Consultations; (5) Capacity Building and FTA resource management; and (6) Leveraging India’s FTAs to address emerging areas such as CBAM, Supply Chain disruptions, Critical Minerals, Artificial Intelligence, etc.

The ‘Roundtable with Former Secretaries and Ambassadors on FTA Strategy’, comprising of Shri Rajeev Kher (Chair), Former Commerce Secretary, Govt. of India; Amb. Ujal Singh Bhatia, Former Appellate Body Member and Chair, WTO; Dr. Anup Wadhawan, Former Commerce Secretary, Govt. of India; Amb. (Dr.) Jayant Das Gupta, Former Ambassador/PR to the WTO; and Shri Sudhanshu Pandey, Former Secretary, Department of Food & Public Distribution, Govt. of India and Election Commissioner for UTs, discussed how Indian FTAs must be driven by balancing geopolitics and geoeconomics, and focused on how regionalism (regional trade agreements) should complement multilateralism (global trade agreements), with regional aspirations stemming from multilateral efforts. The roundtable also identified that FTAs should foster value chain development, and the importance of integrating non-trade issues (e.g., Trade and Sustainable Development – TSD) crucial for market access, as seen in chapters negotiated with, for example EFTA. Lastly, the roundtable highlighted that effective stakeholder consultations ensure realistic and attainable goals and a balanced approach to trade and industrial policies can optimise trade negotiations and outcomes.

Session 1 on ‘India’s FTA Strategy and Economic Assessment and Modelling’, highlighted that detailed economic studies, including models like Computable General Equilibrium (CGE), are necessary to guide FTA negotiations; and how economic models help build negotiation narratives but must be used with an understanding of their assumptions and limitations thereof. The participants also discussed how negotiating investment and trade together can create synergies, and the need for careful consideration of trade policy and the industrial policy together.

Session 2 on ‘Inclusion of New Disciplines into FTAs’ provided an opportunity for participants to explore and understand the implications of new areas such as TSD (including Environment, Labour, Gender, Indigenous Peoples) in trade agreements, the issues involved in enforcing domestic laws and ratifying international treaties; different approaches followed by developed countries for these areas (US and EU models); and the challenges involved in defining policy space, law enforcement, civil society involvement. Among others, some of the solutions suggested by participants included constructive engagement with stakeholders, supporting identification of measures and possible way out, and exploring pilot projects for implementation of those commitments.

Session 3 on ‘Services and Digital Trade in FTAs’ highlighted the significance of services trade, especially cross-border supply (Mode 1), the challenges of data sovereignty, consumer protection and cybersecurity, and the choice between positive and negative listing approaches in services commitments having impact on transparency and negotiation outcomes. The session also explored India’s data adequacy issues under EU GDPR and significant challenges posed by the evolving landscape of e-commerce and digital trade. The speakers also emphasised on how leveraging critical and emerging technologies through initiatives like India-EU TTC and US-India iCET can boost trade prospects for India.

In Session 4 on ‘Standard Operating Procedures for FTA Negotiations including Stakeholder Consultations’, speakers and participants discussed evolution and drafting of SOP and its benefits in enhancing the objectives of trade agreements and creating documentational or institutional memory for future negotiations. Participants discussed the challenge of on-the-spot drafting requiring mechanisms to draft agreements in real-time during negotiations to ensure clarity and immediate consensus, and how the negotiators can ensure that commitments undertaken are pre-approved. The discussions highlighted that relevant stakeholder consultations are essential for inclusive and supportive outcomes, how the stakeholders provide critical insights and hence continuous outreach to stakeholders is necessary to keep them informed and engaged. The participants also explored robust resource management strategies and its implementation, to prevent overstraining, and ensuring proactive problem-solving thereby providing useful and constructive attributions.

Session 5 on ‘Capacity Building and FTA resource management’ identified that FTAs play a critical role in enhancing national security by establishing strong economic ties and creating frameworks for regulatory cooperation. It also acknowledged that modern FTAs address complex issues beyond traditional trade, including digital trade, data protection, and environmental standards. Speakers highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary support noting that successful negotiations require expertise in law, economics, data analytics, and industry specific knowledge and how gathering expert opinions and insights from various sectors enhances the negotiation process. Participants explored ways to utilise the resources of India’s embassies/missions abroad, towards leveraging on-ground insights from embassies which would help understand the regulatory regimes of partner countries.

Discussions in Session 6 on ‘Leveraging India’s FTAs to address emerging areas’ focused on supply chain disruptions, critical minerals, capacity building, de-globalisation and geopolitical influence. Session discussions identified that FTAs can be used as tools to enhance supply chain resilience, ensuring stability and sustainability in trade relationships. It also emerged during discussions that India should negotiate a dedicated chapter on Critical Minerals or Critical Minerals-based agreements specially with such mineral-rich countries to protect India from abrupt disruption in supply chain. The session also noted that the global trend towards partial de-globalisation and the use of industrial policy as a cover for protectionism, and geopolitics now play equally an influential role that of geoeconomics in shaping trade policies. The session suggested that India should use FTAs to build resilient supply chains, focus on capacity building and interdisciplinary expertise, and adapt to the current trend of partial de-globalisation and geopolitical influences.

The Chintan Shivir ended with wrap-up session and report of the event and special remarks by Shri Sunil Barthwal and Additional Secretary, Department of Commerce, Shri Rajesh Agrawal. The event brainstormed various suggestions on formulating India’s FTA strategies and for adopting the standard operating procedures for enhancing India’s FTA preparedness.

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