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WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump looked set to open a new front in his trade wars on Monday with a plan to end preferential trade treatment for India that allows duty-free entry for up to $5.6 billion worth of its exports to the United States.

India played down the impact, saying it was keeping retaliatory tariffs out of its talks with the United States, but the opposition could seize on the issue to embarrass Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of general elections this year.

Trump, who has vowed to cut US trade deficits, has repeatedly called out India for its high tariffs, and US trade officials said scrapping the concessions would take at least 60 days after notifications to Congress and the Indian government.

“I am taking this step because, after intensive engagement between the United States and the government of India, I have determined that India has not assured the United States that it will provide equitable and reasonable access to the markets of India,” Trump told congressional leaders in a letter.

India is the world’s largest beneficiary of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), which dates from the 1970s, and ending its participation would be the strongest punitive action against it since Trump took office.

The planned US action, which comes as the United States and China appear close to a deal to roll back US tariffs on at least $200 billion worth of Chinese goods.

The US Trade Representative’s Office said India’s removal from the GSP would not take effect for at least 60 days after the notifications.

“Discussions are on with the United States, and given cordial and strong ties, (we are) keeping retaliatory tariffs out of it,” Commerce Secretary Anup Wadhawan said in New Delhi.

The preferential treatment brought India an annual “actual benefit” of just $190 million, he told reporters.

Of the 3,700 products covered, India used the concession for just 1,784, Wadhawan added.

“The benefit to industry is low, US tariffs are already low,” said another government official. “GSP is more symbolic of the strategic relationship, not in value terms.” Farm, marine and handicraft products are among India’s exports most likely to be hit, Ajay Sahai, the director general of the Federation of Indian Export Organisations, said, but Indian shares were little changed on the news.

Last week, India delayed until April 1 higher tariffs on some US imports announced in response to a US refusal to exempt it from new steel and aluminium tariffs.

Despite its limited impact, the GSP removal could hurt Modi’s Hindu nationalist ruling party ahead of the election, expected in the next couple of months.

“It can become a political issue in an election year,” said the official who declined to be named.

Modi’s own relationship with Trump has been limited, with their meetings less frequent than those of Chinese President Xi Jinping with Trump, for example.

Trade ties with the United States suffered after India adopted new rules on e-commerce curbing how internet retail giants Amazon.com Inc and Walmart Inc-backed Flipkart do business.

That followed a drive by New Delhi to force global card payments companies such as Mastercard Inc and Visa Inc to move their data to India and higher tariffs on electronic products and smartphones.

In 2017, the United States protested against India’s decision to cap prices of medical devices.

“India has implemented a wide array of trade barriers that create serious negative effects on United States commerce,” said the USTR, which estimates the United States ran a goods and services trade deficit of $27.3 billion with India in 2017.

“Despite intensive engagement, India has failed to take the necessary steps to meet the GSP criterion,” it added.

India’s top GSP exports to the United States in 2017 included motor vehicle parts, ferro alloys, precious metal jewellery, building stone, insulated cables and wires, said business grouping the Confederation of Indian Industry.

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2019