Do Trade Targets Work?

India has used two-way trade targets as a proxy for judging the temperature of its key bilateral and plurilateral relationships. But a deeper understanding is needed of the extent to which physical targets can help accomplish qualitative objectives

The government of India’s new Foreign Trade Policy (FTP) for 2015-2020 has set a $900-billion goods and services export target, to be achieved by 2020. Compared with the $465.9 billion achieved during 2013-14, the target is almost double of current levels.

The policy document prefaces the target with a rare pithy statement: “A vision is best achieved through measurable targets.”[1] But the fact is, most of India’s key diplomatic engagements—at bilateral, plurilateral, or even multilateral levels—are defined by targets.

Targets are ubiquitous in India’s economic diplomacy. There are many ways to judge the breadth and depth of a relationship between two countries, including cultural exchanges, defence cooperation, people-to-people interaction, and historical ties. But trade and investment targets lay out vector paths for future growth, and set concrete milestones against which progress can be gauged.

The target-driven approach is now spreading to bilateral ties with even smaller nations; for example, India and Vietnam recently agreed to a trade target of $15 billion, to be met by 2020. [2]

But targets are essentially cut-and-dry, and temporal. There is no definitive research showing whether targets have succeeded in imparting additional meaning to an existing relationship, or whether they have been effective in bringing two disparate nation-states closer. In other words, there’s no conclusive evidence showing that quantifiable bounds improve the qualitative facet of an engagement.

India’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with ASEAN is a good example. It has been a source of anxiety within government and key stakeholders. India signed the FTA for goods in 2009, but the one on services and investment—arguably India’s strong point—is yet to come into force. Even in the goods trade, India suffers a chronic trade deficit with ASEAN: it imports more than it exports.

In the face of this, the target for India-ASEAN bilateral trade—$100 billion by 2015—looks unattainable, especially since two-way trade (exports plus imports) between the two regions amounted to only $70.5 billion during April-February 2014-15. [3]

Confronted by this glacial pace of trade growth, India has done the next best thing: it has stretched out both the physical target as well the end-date. The India-ASEAN relationship will now be measured by a new target without having to necessarily address performance vis-a-vis the earlier target. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj announced the new target at the inaugural session of Delhi Dialogue VII on March 11: “However, we need to make a special effort to achieve our target of enhancing trade to $100 billion by 2015, and our aspiration is to double it to $200 billion by 2022.” [4]

India has recast other targets in other strategic relationships as well. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi first state visit to the U.S. in September 2014, the joint statement he issued with President Barack Obama stated: “Noting that two-way trade has increased five-fold since 2001 to nearly $100 billion, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi committed to facilitate the actions necessary to increase trade another five-fold.” [5] In other words, to take trade to $500 billion, though the statement refrained from mentioning a target year.

In the other strategic relation with neighbour China, there is some clarity of objectives on both investments and trade. A joint statement issued by Modi and President Xi Jinping in September 2014 announced: “The Chinese side would also endeavour to realise an investment of $20 billion in India in the next 5 years in various industrial and infrastructure development projects”. [6] During the same trip, a five-year Trade and Economic Development Plan signed between the two countries has, among other targets, an unquantified over-riding objective: reduce the trade imbalance India suffers in its $65-billion bilateral trade with China. [7]

Even with Africa, the $90-billion target set for 2015 is likely to be missed. [8] It is also quite likely that the target will be bumped up—both the volume as well the year. This might be announced at the Third India-Africa Summit scheduled for October 2015.

When the foreign trade and investment landscape is suffused with a surfeit of targets, the logical questions are: How are targets fixed? What is the strategy for meeting them? No one knows the answers.

For one, there is no clarity on who should set and announce targets—the commerce ministry or the external affairs ministry? While think tanks and academic experts are known to have been engaged by both ministries to finalise targets, the research output is not available to civil society, either for viewing or for providing inputs. Inviting public comments before finalising targets, or even to assess the methodology used, can probably infuse some realism into these exercises.

Second, once the targets are announced, there is no detailed analysis of how these will be met, and no outlining of strategy, at least not in the public domain.

Finally, this year’s Foreign Trade Policy also raises a crucial issue that has bedevilled India’s trade practices: the lack of coordination between different economic agents as well as ministries operating in silo-like structures. But then the policy stops short of mentioning how “Make in India” or “Digital India” or even the policy on smart cities can be integrated with the FTP to deliver higher exports of both goods and services. That remains the biggest challenge for India’s trade regime.


[1] Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India; Foreign Trade Policy Statement, <>, p.14

[2] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Joint Statement by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung,28 October 2014, <>

[3] Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India, Trade Statistics, <>

[4] Swaraj, Sushma, Keynote Address at Inaugural Session of Delhi Dialogue VII,Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, 11 March 2015,


[5] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Joint statement by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi & U.S.A. President Barack Obama, 30 September 2014,


[6] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Joint Statement between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China on Building a Closer Developmental Partnership, 19 September 2014,

[7] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, List of Documents signed during the State Visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India, 18 September 2014,

[8] Singhal, Rajrishi; Indian Banks in Africa: Change Agents; Policy Perspective No 8, Gateway House: Indian Counmcil on Global Relations, 9 January 2015, 


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