Top US trade negotiator says the Clock may run out on interim deal with India

Top US trade negotiator says the Clock may run out on interim deal with India


The top US trade negotiator on Wednesday indicated that though a smaller trade deal with India was within reach, the clock may run out on it because of a “political change” taking place.

The reference was to President-elect Joe Biden taking over from President Donald Trump in the days to come.

“We’re not that far away from a deal like that,” said Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative of the outgoing Trump administration. “We have a political change going on over here and that’s going to be a bit of a setback, certainly to the extent that I can facilitate that I’d be happy to do it, but there’s going to be some change and my guess is that’s going to slow things up.”

That, in other words, was the possible end of the Trump administration’s efforts to get a smaller, interim trade deal with India to set up a larger and more ambitious Free Trade Agreement (FTA) at a later stage.

Lighthizer put the prospects of that larger deal in perspective with characteristic bluntness, saying, “In terms of a major deal, the kind of deal that I know that your minister and our bosses would like, at least in concept - my guess is that’s going to take a while, my guess is, that’s not going to be happen anytime soon.”

Lighthizer was participating in a Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII) annual summit, held virtually this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

India and the US have long-running trade differences, persisting across administrations in both countries. The Trump administration forced the pace of ongoing talks by ending special trade benefits for India in the summer of 2019.

Talks had since then been under way to find a resolution - a smaller, interim deal addressing immediate concerns to be followed up by a larger trade deal at a later stage.

The interim trade deal - that was referred to by Lighthizer on Wednesday as the small deal - was to reinstate India’s terminated trade benefits of duty-free exports to the US under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) in return for greater access for American companies to certain Indian markets and some concessions.

The two sides had wanted to have a deal ready to be signed and announced during Trump’s visit to India in February, but outstanding differences stayed in the way.

Lighthizer, known to be a tough negotiator, had cancelled a visit to India ahead of the president’s trip in a clear sign that the talks were stalemated.

Still publicly optimistic of a deal - which was described as “just a few phone-calls away” at one stage - the two sides had then said they will sign an interim agreement at a later time, either before or immediately after the November 3 election. But, as Lighthizer indicated, it’s over to the Biden administration now.