India has an unmatched capacity to look an opportunity firmly in the eye, turn around, and walk off resolutely in the opposite direction. The latest manifestation of this genius gift is the decision to reject the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) despite 29 rounds of negotiations and scores of ministerial meetings and intersessional dialogues. According to my Crawford School colleagues Peter Drysdale and Adam Triggs: "In signing RCEP, Asia has chosen openness over protectionism, regionalism over nationalism, cooperation over confrontation, and solidarity over suspicion." By implication, India has chosen nationalism, protectionism and suspicion.
Meeting in Bangkok on Nov. 4, 15 Asia-Pacific countries decided to sign RCEP next year. Boasts of a 142-cm chest notwithstanding, come crunch time, courage failed Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Once again India shows interest in a multilateral deal in the abstract, but rejects the package actually negotiated by all others. While they found common ground through mutual accommodation, India seems congenitally prone to giving less and taking more.
India's defection robs RCEP of the initial ambition to be bigger than the North America Free Trade Agreement and the European Union, but is not fatal to the project. A major new plank in the Indo-Pacific economic architecture, RCEP will implement an integrated, single set of trade rules and value chains for the whole region minus India. Amid rising protectionist pressures fueled by anti-globalization sentiment, it should help to offset the declining salience of international institutions like the WTO.