APEC member economies’ work to promote greater integration in the region could help to consolidate the growing number of free trade agreements and strengthen the multilateral trading system on which they are based.
This was among the key messages offered by trade experts during a recent workshop in Singapore to help members of parliaments from Asia-Pacific economies better understand new trade patterns and the path to improving the flow of goods and services.
“The proliferation of free trade agreements is driven by a need to keep the wheels of growth spinning,” said Dr Alan Bollard, Executive Director of the APEC Secretariat. “But this is resulting in a complex tangle of commitments that are hard for economies to manage and for businesses to understand and utilize.”
“Regional measures such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are intended to establish clearer preferences and rules of origin,” Dr Bollard explained. “These negotiations are built on APEC’s work to establish free trade throughout the region and could bring us closer to realizing this goal.”
By 2011, the World Trade Organization had been notified of more than 300 free trade agreements – also known as preferential trade agreements – in Asia alone, according to the Temasek Foundation Center for Trade and Negotiations.
“APEC is very much an incubator of ideas that are helping to break down barriers to trade, and can be an integrator of agreements,” said Dr Alan Bollard. “Our traditional focus on tariff reduction has expanded in recent years to include non-tariff barriers and, increasingly, more complex behind-the-border issues.”
“The harmonization of rules that effect goods and cutting of red tape for cross border business is vital to future trade and investment growth, and could lead economies toward the convergence of agreements,” Dr Bollard explained. “Ultimately, this is what we want to see and are seeking to achieve as a component of our agenda for increased growth and prosperity.”
A multilateral approach remains the strongest option for addressing the “noodle bowl” of trade agreements. APEC economies’ support and pioneering trade development is helping to lay a path forward, noted Keith Rockwell, Chief Spokesman for the World Trade Organization.
"An agreement on trade facilitation by the WTO ministerial meeting in December is vital both on the merits of the deal itself and because it would generate momentum for the broader WTO negotiating agenda,” Rockwell said.
“APEC, a great ideas incubator, has already shown that streamlining customs procedures can greatly improve trade flows,” he affirmed. “At a time of slackening trade growth, ideas which may jumpstart new flows deserve every consideration by WTO members.”
This is particularly true given that globalized production processes and supply chains mean that many goods—from blue jeans to tablet computers and smart phones to commercial jets—now cross borders multiple times during assembly, the participants concluded.
The workshop was jointly organized by the Temasek Foundation Center for Trade and Negotiations and the World Trade Organization.