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21 September 2015, Gateway House

Byte but no BIT

Behind the hullabaloo and grand optics that will accompany PM Narendra Modi’s visit to the U.S. will be laser-focused discussions on enhancing the strategic trade and investment relationship

Former Senior Fellow, Geoeconomics Studies

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The agenda for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 5-day visit to the U.S. starting September 24, much like his previous trip, is brimming with activity. Apart from attending the United Nations General Assembly, he is travelling to San Francisco to burnish his Digital India credentials, then returning to New York to meet President Barack Obama for a bilateral dialogue and closing by catching up with key U.S. businessmen and CEOs for a closed-door conversation.

But behind Modi’s headline-grabbing California spectacle are other Indian ministers and businessmen who will be rolling up their sleeves and getting down to business in Washington DC.

High on the list is the first meeting of the newly-crafted India-USA Strategic and Commercial Dialogue (S&CD) on September 22, which was upgraded from India-USA Strategic Dialogue this January during Obama’s Republic Day visit[i]. The moniker change reflects the strategic importance of trade, economic and investment to the bilateral ties. The roll-call of the meeting attendees also reveals what will be discussed and what’s off-the-table.

On the Indian end of the table will be External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, with Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker on the U.S. side. On September 21, a day before the Dialogue, Vice President Joe Biden, Kerry and Swaraj will address the U.S.-India Business Chamber’s anniversary celebrations. Other ministers, including energy minister Piyush Goyal, will be present and when the Dialogue commences the next day, Goyal will meet his U.S. counterpart, Ernest Moniz, for the Sixth India-U.S. Energy Partnership Summit.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will be present at the bilateral talks between Modi and Obama. If Biden does indeed make a bid for the presidency, as has been widely rumoured, his involvement becomes significant.

So far, one thing is clear from the agenda: the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) is not in the picture. That inference arises from Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s absence from the proceedings. The hypothesis becomes even more compelling because the finance ministry has crafted India’s model draft agreement and placed it in the public domain for stakeholder inputs. There are numerous sticking points between India and the U.S. over the draft that will take time to discuss, debate and disentangle. Among them are the investor-state dispute system, intellectual property rights (IPR) and expropriation. Given that the Obama presidency is fast entering the “lame-duck” zone, the BIT might have been kept out because it is still a work-in-progress.

The Dialogue will focus on four areas, according to undersecretary of commerce for international trade, Stefan M Selig’s briefing to reporters September 16 at the American Chamber of Commerce in New Delhi in August 2015[ii]:

  • Building tomorrow’s smart cities in India and the related infrastructure: The U.S. will participate in “smartening up” three cities — Ajmer, Allahabad and Vizag — and the talks will identify U.S. companies that can deliver on the promise.
  • Participating in strengthening India’s business climate to the benefit of both Indian and American businesses: This is an euphemism for tackling all the current pain-points in the relationship, especially for the U.S.: IPR, contract laws, the Indian legal system. Strangely, pre-Dialogue chatter seems to centre only on the business climate in India, without any mention of the non-tariff barriers and curbs on movement of skilled people from India to the U.S.
  • Harmonizing product standards to increase trade and further deepen our industries’ integration into global supply chains: Creating and developing common standards – safety, environmental or labour – in manufacturing that will help integrate India’s trade outreach with both the Asia Pacific Economic Community (APEC) and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). India is not a member of either grouping. Included will also be trade in agricultural goods and the future of the Doha Round at the upcoming WTO ministerial at Nairobi.
  • Developing best practices around innovation and entrepreneurship: Among the many issues on the table, renewable energy will likely find mention.

What’s different this time is that the talks could depart from the transactional nature of previous rounds and instead identify credible milestones, especially ones that help stretch the annual bilateral trade volume from $100 billion currently to $500 billion. Beyond that, both sides will look to elevate trade into a strategic and diplomatic tool, one that aligns Modi’s “Look East, Act East” policy with Obama’s Asia Rebalance strategy. The nuts and bolts of this tool are likely to be identified on September 22.

Another clue to the future direction of the bilateral and the Dialogue is the equal, if not larger, role that the private sector is expected to play over the public sector in strengthening mutual ties. That’s why the USIBC event has been scheduled a day prior to the Dialogue, so U.S. corporations can voice concerns that can be discussed at the Dialogue the next day.

A disconcerting element: apart from the fanfare around Modi’s public appearances, there hasn’t been much forthcoming from the Indian delegation, the exception being a recent and bare-bones press release from the Ministry of External Affairs[iii]. For the moment then, policy-watchers we will have to remain content with Modi’s grand shows.

Rajrishi Singhal is Senior Geoeconomics Fellow, Gateway House. He has been a senior business journalist, and Executive Editor, The Economic Times, and served as Head, Policy and Research, at a private sector bank.

[i] Department of Commerce, Statement from U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker on U.S.-India Strategic and Commercial Dialogue; January 26, 2015; <https://www.commerce.gov/news/press-releases/2015/01/statement-us-commerce-secretary-penny-pritzker-us-india-strategic-and>

[ii] International Trade Administration, Speech (as prepared for delivery) by Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, Stefan M Selig; August 11, 2015; New Delhi;  <http://www.trade.gov/press/speeches/2015/selig-081115.asp>

[iii] Ministry of External Affairs, Press Releases, September 18, 2015 <http://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/25817/First_Ministerial_of_the_IndiaUS_Strategic_and_Commercial_Dialogue>

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