An influential Republican senator has asked President George Bush to negotiate a full scale free trade agreement with India following the successful conclusion of the India-US civil nuclear deal.
"It's a good beginning. However, we can't let this energy agreement stand alone," retiring Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who played a key role in getting the enabling India nuclear bill passed by the lame-duck Congress, said on Monday.
"Should it come to fruition, a US-India free trade agreement would comprise over a quarter of the world's economy — the largest free trade zone in history. A free trade agreement with India, quite simply, is a national imperative. We should start work towards one without delay," he said in a commentary in The Examiner daily.
While US and India have committed to a goal of doubling trade within the next three years, even that level would lie far below the potential, Frist said adding, "by letting both countries do what they do best, opening up trade with India will continue to increase the standard of living in both countries."
Frist, who dropped out of the 2008 presidential race after his party's defeat in the Nov 7 Congressional elections, offered an additional reason for a trade deal with India: a common mortal threat from radical Islam. Noting that "Islamic fascist terrorists have killed more citizens of India than those of any other countries," he said "India's position as the world's largest democracy and its ever-growing economy means that Al-Qaeda and their ilk will target it even more often in the future."
"The United States must stand with our democratic allies like India as we continue to wage a global war on terror," said Frist who is retiring of his own volition after 12 years, the last four as majority leader.
In the long term, US should also consider inviting India's neighbours — Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh in particular — to join agreements that it makes with India, he said.
"Each of these countries has the potential to play a major role in the war on terror, and an enduring relationship with each will require both economic and military cooperation. As India plays a leadership role in its region, it should be the first country we approach," Frist said.
Noting that concluding a free trade agreement will take a lot of work, he said a final agreement should, of course, include measures to protect the environment and workers while promoting governmental transparency.
The World Trade Organisation's ongoing Doha Round talks themselves have stalled on agricultural issues. Both the US and India have legitimate interests at stake that require resolution. But we cannot let these differences stop all progress, Frist said.
"The prospect of a much broader trade agreement might be just the thing to get the talks moving again," he said.
Frist said the hard work of finalising the US-India nuclear cooperation agreement last week convinced him that the world's two largest democracies need to develop a strong trade partnership based on free exchange of goods and ideas. Most senators recognise that US needs to improve its relationship with India and that's why the nuclear cooperation pact attracted overwhelming support before it was finally passed, he said.
Once the US and India settle the thorny outstanding trade issues in the World Trade Organisation talks, the president should begin an effort to negotiate a full scale US-Indian free-trade agreement, Frist suggested noting that "America's economic prosperity and security would benefit."
To begin with, American competitiveness in the global economy depends on expanding our global commercial partnerships. Over the next decade, India will almost certainly grow to have the world's largest population.
Its economy has already grown larger than Germany's — the largest in the European Union — and will eventually surpass Japan's. India's growing middle class provides a fertile market for American goods and its skyrocketing economic growth creates a strong environment for American investors.
Trade volumes have already begun to grow and, with a trade agreement, they would grow further. Between 2001 and 2005 alone, trade between the US and India increased from $14 billion to $26 billion.
In the same period, over one million Indians — the great majority of them skilled professionals — have also moved to the United States to work and set up businesses, Frist noted.