India calls for 'fresh' trade talks with US

Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal said Wednesday he will “engage with the new USTR (US trade representative) to try and put together a fresh package. I think the old one is now off the table.
Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal during a session at the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. (Reuters)
Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal during a session at the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. (Reuters)
Updated on Feb 18, 2021 02:41 AM IST
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ByYashwant Raj, Washington

India has called for a “fresh package” for trade talks with the United States and the new Biden administration that will go beyond, this time, the “nitpicking” and the constant shifting of goalposts that had bogged down the last round of discussions with the Trump administration.

India and the United States had failed to agree on a deal that was pared down considerably in expectations to a “mini” agreement — also called an “interim” deal — to allow for a quick resolution of some long-standing issues that could pave the way for a more ambitious free trade agreement at a future date.

Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal said Wednesday he will “engage with the new USTR (US trade representative) to try and put together a fresh package. I think the old one is now off the table. We’ll have to all look afresh at different ideas and see how our engagement in the future can, really, course-correct some of the problems that we’ve seen in the past”.

Goyal and his US counterpart, Katherine Tai, the nominee for USTR have yet to meet or hold talks yet primarily because she had yet to be confirmed by US senate.

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The last round of trade talks between Goyal and Robert Lighthizer, who was the USTR for former President Donald Trump, had failed despite clear expectations of a resolution being close at hand. Goyal, in fact, had one stage expressed optimism that a deal was just a few phone-calls away.

Indian officials have long complained, but privately, the Trump administration had kept adding to their list of asks and, pushing away an agreement every time it looked imminent.

“I think the last time around when we were discussing, we were nitpicking with very small issues and changing the goalposts in every subsequent conversation,” Minister Goyal said at a virtual event hosted by the US-India Business Council (USIBC), conveying India’s frustration for the first time perhaps in such sharp terms.

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“I do hope this time around we can look at the big picture,” he said. “We have to sort out some of the issues which are much more relevant to a larger engagement and leave some of the small things, which earlier were kind of dealbreakers and therefore, a lot of management bandwidth or political bandwidth was going into very small issues. I think we need to leave those aside and move into the orbit of a much greater engagement.”

Trade differences have been the single largest drag on India-US bilateral ties. They have withstood the growing trajectory in every other sphere and aspect of the multi-faceted engagement spanning across a wide spectrum, everything from cooperation on space to healthcare to defense and IT.

The Trump administration had terminated India’s special benefits under a US trade programme to force India to give US companies access to its dairy sector and free medical devices from price regulations. Other elements got tacked as the US side tried to maximize its gains.

Read more: US leaders dial Indian counterparts; talk cooperation in defence, Indo-Pacific

Minister Goyal spoke briefly about one of them, US demands on pharmaceuticals and medical devices. “Your American pharma companies are unhappy about our desire not to allow evergreening of pharma products, and they change the molecule a little bit and they call it a new innovation”.

Goyal was referring to incremental modifications pharmaceutical companies make to their existing medicines to qualify them for higher prices as “new inventions”, a process called “evergreening”. India does not recognize them these minor changes as inventions worthy of higher prices.

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Thursday, December 09, 2021