India and China; making up, but what about trade?

Salman Khurshid, India’s foreign minister, is back from a trip to China last week, happy to see the end of a tense stand-off over a long-running border dispute. Settling that issue will re-open the way for a planned visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India and allow the two countries to concentrate on the big topic on Khurshid’s agenda: trade.

But here, too, relations between the region’s big powers are not entirely friendly.

Back in November 2011, India and China set a target for bilateral trade of $100bn for 2015. That’s quite a leap from $2.3bn a decade ago and marks a concrete step in bringing the two nations closer together.

But the balance of trade is strongly in China’s favour. Now Kurshid has put the November 2011 agreement “on pause” until the imbalance is resolved.

According to India’s department of commerce, India’s exports to China in April to December 2012 were worth $9.7bn. In the same period, China’s exports to India were worth $41.2bn – a bilateral trade deficit for India of $31.5bn, nearly a quarter of India’s entire trade deficit in the period.

Khurshid claimed not to have minced his words:

We said that let the trade imbalance be addressed upfront as an urgent priority, and then of course we can move to the next stage which is the regional trading arrangement.

What does the minister want from China? One target is better market access, especially for India’s IT and pharmaceuticals companies. Indian business leaders complain that exports to China would be much greater if China’s big state owned enterprises could be persuaded to source from foreign suppliers.

But others say a lack of competitiveness among Indian manufacturers contributes to the problem.

“China has a very competitive manufacturing sector that is able to produce at a large scale pretty efficiently and for reasonable prices,” says Louis Kuijs, chief China economist at RBS.

“Sometimes we would be inclined to think there is a lot of [Chinese] government policy behind this. People point to the subsidies that China’s government has given to industries in the past and companies having preferential access to loans. But in the bigger scheme of things, those subsidies aren’t the driving force. China is a bit ahead in industrialisation and has becomes very competitive globally.”

Kuijs doesn’t think this is about to change. Chinese manufacturers do good business in India in both consumer goods and capital goods. And he takes the view that, despite the current cyclical slowdown, both consumption and infrastructure investment will remain robust in India, so demand for Chinese products will continue to grow.

A little tinkering on a calculator provides a bit of good news for Indian trade, however. According to data from the World Trade Organization, India’s global merchandise exports grew faster than China’s between 2005 and 2012. Over the seven-year period, India’s exports grew at an average 18.3 per cent a year, against a figure of 16.3 per cent for China and 9.4 per cent for the world as a whole.

So, Indian exports are growing relatively quickly. But China’s lower growth comes from a far higher base. In 2012, China exported goods worth more than $2tn while India’s exports were worth $293bn. Even with their faster rate of growth, it will take a long time for India’s exporters to catch up on China’s lead.

Related reading:
India’s current account gap goes from bad to worse, beyondbrics
[brief] India inflation eases, beyondbrics
Indian economy: An unfinished project, FT