Navigating India’s Free Trade Agreements: Opportunities, Challenges, and Strategic Shifts

In the dynamic landscape of global trade, India finds itself at a crossroads, engaging in free trade negotiations that could shape its economic future. The Global Trade Research Initiative (GTRI) recently highlighted concerns about potential pitfalls in these negotiations, emphasizing that India might be giving up more than it stands to gain. Let’s delve into the intricacies of India’s free trade agreements (FTAs) and explore the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Understanding the Current Scenario

India is actively involved in negotiations with major economies, including the UK, European Union (EU), USA, and others. The GTRI report points out that, despite the allure of FTAs, India’s imports from countries without such agreements still constitute a significant majority. This raises questions about the effectiveness and impact of these FTAs on India’s overall trade dynamics.

Unpacking the Tariff Dilemma

One of the primary concerns outlined by the GTRI is the discrepancy in tariff structures between India and its potential FTA partners, particularly the UK and EU. While over half of the imports by these partners already incur zero tariffs, India faces a higher average tariff rate of 12.6%. The lower duties in the UK and EU could provide a substantial advantage to their exporters, potentially leaving Indian exporters with only limited benefits.

Lessons from Past FTAs

Drawing lessons from previous FTAs with Japan, ASEAN, and South Korea, the GTRI highlights a common trend where Indian firms often choose not to utilize the FTA route when import duties are already low. This reluctance stems from the belief that the compliance costs associated with FTAs may outweigh the tariff benefits.

Merchandise Trade Deficit and Sectoral Imbalances

Examining India’s past FTAs with ASEAN, South Korea, and Japan, the GTRI report underscores a concerning trend. India’s merchandise trade deficit with these partners increased significantly more than its global trade deficit, indicating potential imbalances in the trade relationships fostered through FTAs. Additionally, the analysis reveals that India’s exports to these FTA partners grew at a slower rate than its imports.

The Challenge of Non-Tariff Barriers

While reducing import duties is a key focus in FTAs, the GTRI report warns about the emergence of non-tariff barriers. Environmental, gender, and labor standards embedded in new FTAs could pose challenges for Indian exporters, limiting the growth potential in certain sectors like apparel.

Shifting Focus: Westward Bound

India is recalibrating its FTA strategy, shifting focus from East to West. Negotiations are underway with major global economies, including the UK, USA, EU, Switzerland, Norway, and Russia. By the end of 2024, India could potentially have FTAs with all major economies except China.

Strategic Priorities for India

As India navigates the complexities of FTAs, the GTRI recommends prioritizing real market access on the ground. The emphasis should not solely be on tariff reductions but on expanding demand through the offering of better quality and a wider range of products. The report underscores the need for cautious negotiations in new subject areas like environment, labor, and digital trade to safeguard domestic regulatory autonomy.


In conclusion, India stands at a crucial juncture in its pursuit of free trade agreements. The challenges highlighted by the GTRI underscore the need for a strategic and cautious approach. While FTAs present opportunities for market access, the potential pitfalls, including tariff imbalances and non-tariff barriers, must be carefully navigated. India’s success in these negotiations will depend on its ability to strike a balance between opening up to global markets and protecting its domestic interests.

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