Trade

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says India needs to take 'decisive action' for a trade deal with the US

Key Points
  • The United States and India can reach a trade agreement quickly if New Delhi takes strong, decisive actions, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Thursday.
  • Ross is set to meet his Indian counterpart, Piyush Goyal, on Thursday where he said he'll present ways India can benefit from Washington's ongoing trade war with Beijing. 
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross testifies during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the census on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017.
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

NEW DELHI—The United States and India can reach a trade agreement quickly if New Delhi takes strong, decisive actions, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Thursday.

"We do think that there's no structural reason why there can't be (a deal) pretty quickly," Ross said on a panel at the India Economic Summit in New Delhi. He is set to meet one-on-one with India's minister for railways and commerce, Piyush Goyal, with whom he also shared the stage at the event.

"We each know the other's issues, we have for quite some little while," Ross said, adding that following Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decisive victory in the parliamentary elections earlier this year, the Indian leader has "a very clear strong position in the parliament, (and it) should be a lot easier to take decisive action."

Washington and New Delhi have been locked in a trade dispute for months. For its part, the U.S. removed India from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) earlier this year, citing unequal access to the Indian market—the program, in place since the 1970s and aimed at developing nations, allowed India to export many of its goods into the U.S. market without tariffs.

India responded by imposing retaliatory tariffs on 28 U.S. products, including almonds, apples, and walnuts.

According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, India was the 13th largest goods export market for the U.S. in 2018. The U.S. goods trade deficit with India last year was $21.3 billion, which was down 7.1% over 2017.

On the trade front, one of the main focus for President Donald Trump's administration has been to reduce trade deficits with countries and that included renegotiating some of the existing trade agreements. Washington is also engaged in protracted trade war with Beijing—both countries have applied tariffs on billions of dollars worth of each other's goods, which has created global uncertainty and dampened economic outlook.

Ross explained that while the focus is on reducing trade deficit, the U.S. will not stand for unfair trade practices even if they result in smaller deficits. "We believe that most of the things we're requesting, particularly of India, would not only help U.S. vis-a-vis India, we think a lot of them would help India itself."

The U.S. wants India to lower tariffs on some of its exports, including motorcycles and certain agricultural products. In return, India wants preferential treatment restored on some of its exports to the United States, according to reports.

A trade deal between the two countries was being speculated during Modi's latest visit to the U.S., where he and Trump shared the stage at a massive rally.

In his meeting on Thursday with Goyal, Ross said he will discuss ways South Asia's largest economy can take advantage of the ongoing trade tensions with China.

Expectations of a trade deal being struck between the two countries remain but it may not be a comprehensive one, according to Chandrajit Banerjee, the director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry.

"I am pretty much positive that both U.S. and India would definitely move towards some sort of a deal, which might not be a comprehensive one, but in bits and pieces, there are many gives and takes that both sides could do," he told CNBC. "I see no reason why we will not be able to moderate our position in some of them."

He added that both New Delhi and Washington acknowledge the importance of the other as a trading partner. When asked about the impact of the U.S. removing India from the GSP program, Banerjee said the move mostly hurt small or medium-sized companies. Reinstating that preference for India is going to factor in the negotiations, he explained.

E-commerce

One area of contention between the two countries is in India's e-commerce sector, where in February, the government shook up regulations that affected giants like Amazon India and Walmart-owned Flipkart. Those companies were forced to change their business structure in order to comply with the new rules that were aimed at discouraging steep discounts to consumers. India has also restricted foreign direct investment in multi-brand retailers.

Those moves are meant to protect small retailers, Goyal said on the panel.

He explained his government does not change rules midway and that it provides "a very stable and predictable regulatory framework and where we find that there are concerns, we normally try to have a dialogue."

Ross said those changes likely dented Amazon's willingness to invest more in its India business. "It probably would have spent a lot more in India, if it didn't feel that there was a diminution in growth due to some of those policies," he said, adding that India needs to figure out how to balance protecting small businesses without restricting the larger ones.