India’s shock move this week to pull out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has triggered a fresh round of scoffing from cynics who for years have lampooned the trade pact’s repeated delays and low ambitions. But even as these critics complain about being “taken for a ride” by India , which negotiated hard for seven years only to jump ship at the last minute, proponents of the deal say there is still much to cheer about. Supporters of the India-less RCEP say that while its shortcomings must be acknowledged, it is a shot in the arm for multilateralism amid the rising trend of protectionism around the world. The 15 economies left in the RCEP – comprising the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( Asean ), China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand – this week said they had agreed on the “text-based negotiations” and would work towards signing a deal some time next year after lawyers comb through the draft agreement, and specifics on market access are settled. They also left the door open to India, saying they would continue to work with New Delhi to settle “outstanding issues” – despite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi telling a regional summit in Bangkok he could not agree to the deal because it would be ruinous for his country’s poor. Singapore-based trade analyst Deborah Elms, among the handful of experts who have tracked the deal’s progress since negotiations began in 2012, said it was “understandable” but “somewhat unfortunate” that the media’s focus was on India’s exit, rather than the agreement “in principle” of the 15 countries. “Leaders have pulled off what many believed was an impossible task – in spite of strong global headwinds, 15 Asian countries managed to agree on a significant new trade deal that will lead to new integration in the region,” Elms wrote in a commentary. India out but China and Asia-Pacific partners to press on with RCEP free trade pact Kaewkamol Pitakdumrongkit, an assistant professor at the Centre of Multilateralism Studies in Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, agreed, saying “with or without India, RCEP will be the world’s biggest trading bloc when it signs next year”. The experts conceded that from a purely statistical point of view, the 15 countries going ahead with the pact were likely to see only a minimal impact on their growth rates. In a study published in August, University of Queensland researcher Renuka Mahadevan and the Indonesia finance ministry’s Anda Nugruho forecast that China , the biggest economy of the 15, would see a minuscule 0.08 per cent bump in GDP as a result of being in an India-less RCEP in 2030. In this scenario, Malaysia, Vietnam and South Korea would fare the best of the 15 countries, but would still see minimal growth, according to the researchers. Had India joined the pact, it was projected to see a slight increase in GDP growth, but it is now projected to suffer a marginal fall. The researchers said India’s giant services economy – staffed by the country’s skilled professionals – needed the RCEP for expanded markets. Edmund Sim, partner at the multinational trade and investment law firm Appleton Luff, said without the participation of the South Asian economy, “the chances of accelerated trade and investment liberalisation are better”. Supporters of the RCEP insist they are not turning a blind eye to its deficiencies. The deal does not address issues such as intellectual property rights and the environment, or offer a clear pathway for investors to deal with disputes with member states. The so-called investor-state dispute-settlement mechanism – almost a prerequisite in multilateral trade deals of recent times – will be put on ice for the medium term after Malaysia lobbied for such action during negotiations earlier this year. The RCEP has often been compared to the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has these provisions. That deal, the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact the US drew up during the administration of Barack Obama and then dumped when President Donald Trump succeeded him, has its own set of problems. Of the 11 countries that signed that deal in March last year, only seven have ratified the pact. Peru, Malaysia, Brunei and Chile have held out. Heng Wang, an associate professor of law focusing on economics and trade at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said the lack of a dispute-settlement mechanism would have implications “for at least the first several years”. Firstly, it would give governments more space to regulate investment and public policy. However, it could also influence decisions by foreign investors, as it would mean they could not bring disputes against host governments. Seven years on, still no RCEP trade deal, and India pulls out Overall, even though “sensitive issues” had been omitted from the RCEP, “one may argue that it is better to have a set of rules, although not necessarily at a high level, for regional trade”, Heng said. Kaewkamol, the Singapore-based researcher, said in her commentary that “economic factors alone cannot capture the whole RCEP story”. One of the outcomes of the pact, the professor said, was that it promoted the long-vaunted concept of “Asean centrality”, the notion that the 10-nation bloc must play a pivotal role in any economic or security relations the region has with outside powers. India’s concerns about RCEP remain the major obstacle to world’s largest trade deal Kaewkamol and other analysts dismissed the common perception that the RCEP – simply because of the non-involvement of the US – was led by China. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong underscored this, saying the deal illustrated how “Asean’s involvement as a trusted, neutral group has enabled many countries to come together and cooperate under the RCEP”. Elms, the trade consultant, wrote in her commentary this week that the 15 countries could sign a deal as soon as February, with it coming into force “potentially as early as January 1, 2021”.