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India eyes common trade bloc

New Delhi, Oct. 16: India may have spent $8 billion in organising the Commonwealth Games this fortnight, but compared with the $93 billion it trades annually with the Commonwealth members, that spending is small change.

Top Indian officials said India had long advocated turning the “club” into a trade bloc where members enjoyed exclusive tariff advantages but has been thwarted by the British who preferred an euro-centric trade policy. However, it intends to use the former British colonies’ club to strike trade and investment deals to its benefit over the next few years.

Diplomatic jousting by developing nations, which want market access in the West, saw the 1997 meeting of the Commonwealth heads of states and governments at Edinburg agree to an “explicit focus on economic, financial and business relations”.

Studies by London-based Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) showed that India bought goods worth $53.15 billion annually from Commonwealth countries and sold goods worth $39.65 billion. Exports to Commonwealth nations account for 21 per cent of India’s total exports, while imports make up for around 17 per cent.

“In percentage terms, our trade with the Commonwealth has fallen but in absolute terms it’s still a big chunk of what we export or import and this has a potential of expanding in multiples,” said commerce ministry officials.

Commerce minister Anand Sharma had said at a conference recently, “Trade among Commonwealth countries is bound to expand as there are sweeping changes happening.”

Indian officials said, “Britain and Canada, which are the only two nations whose trade with other Commonwealth nations is in single digits, are also keen to turn the Commonwealth to their trading advantage … the reason of course is the economic weakness in European and American markets.”

The UK’s trade with the Commonwealth nations is 8-9 per cent of its total trade, while Canada’s stands at 6-7 per cent. The other two large economies in the Commonwealth — Australia and South Africa — continue to sell about 22 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively, of their total exports to fellow members.

“We do not envisage a Commonwealth trade pact in the near future but do visualise using the club to catapult FTAs (free trade agreements) and economic pacts. We are working on FTAs with Australia, Bangladesh and have similar deals with two other members — Sri Lanka and Singapore,” the officials said. A trade pact with Canada is also on the anvil.

An RCS study, released to coincide with the Commonwealth Games, says “Intra-Commonwealth investment flows have exceeded $180 billion”.

Danny Sriskandarajah, director of the RCS, said, “The Commonwealth may be best known for its Games, but it seems to be delivering some serious gains on the trade front. Though founded on shared political bonds, the Commonwealth’s future may lie in promoting economic ties.”

Indian officials said the country had been relying mostly on English-speaking Commonwealth members for its energy and raw material security.

“In Africa, we have found the going easier in the Commonwealth states and tougher in French speaking countries.”

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