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China firming up trade agreements with South Asian countries

Beijing’s recent efforts to sign FTAs with several countries is now part of its broad plans to enter trade agreements with countries along the Belt and Road Initiative.

world Updated: Dec 04, 2017 15:25 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times, Beijing
China,India,free trade agreement
A container is loaded onto a cargo ship at the Tianjin port in China.(AP File)

The apparent haste with which the Maldives vetted its free trade agreement (FTA) with China last week could have come as a surprise to India, but the agreement between the two countries is part of Beijing’s steady efforts to strengthen economic ties with South Asian nations, including via proposed trade agreements.

For China, it is the second FTA with a South Asian country after Pakistan.

Beijing’s recent efforts to sign FTAs with several countries is now part of its broad plans to enter trade agreements with countries along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the multi-billion dollar connectivity project which plans to link China with the rest of Asia, Africa and Europe. China has FTAs or is in talks to sign FTAs with as many as 25 countries and regions along the BRI, state media has reported.

At present, Beijing is at discussion stage to sign an FTA with Sri Lanka, with six rounds of talks already held. It also plans to upgrade the one with Pakistan. Feasibility studies for FTA have also been initiated with Nepal, Bangladesh and Mauritius.

“The ministry of commerce had made progress in eight FTA talks, as well as launched feasibility studies and negotiations with another eight countries and regions in 2016,” Zhang Shaogang, director-general of the department of international trade and economic affairs at the ministry told the state-controlled China Daily newspaper.

Even if China does strengthen its economic ties with South Asian countries via FTAs, the arrangements are not targeted against India, state media reported on Monday.

“It needs to be noted that economic cooperation between China and the Maldives does not target any third party, India included. The expeditious signing of the trade pact only signifies that the two countries urgently hope to tap the potential for cooperation due to their economic complementarity,” the nationalistic tabloid Global Times said in a comment piece.

But expect economic ties between China and South Asian countries to become stronger, the article said.

“To take the example of Sri Lanka, it is because of finance and industrial complementation that the two countries have increased cooperation in infrastructure construction and the pursuit of free trade. Political relationships are sometimes a barometer of economic ties.

“It won’t be easy for India to maintain its political influence in South Asia if its own economic presence is weakening. If India thinks its position is threatened, it should consider how it can give more benefits to its neighbours through win-win economic cooperation,” the article said.

First Published: Dec 04, 2017 15:25 IST