“APEC Trade Ministers Discussed Key Future Issues of Trade Agreements” by Sanchita Basu Das

2017/32, 29 May 2017
The trade ministers from the 21 APEC member economies met in Hanoi, Vietnam, on 20-21 May 2017. The meeting was of special relevance as it was the first international forum for Mr. Robert Lighthizer to attend as a confirmed US Trade Representative (USTR) under the Trump administration.

The highlights of the meetings are as follows:

First, continuing with the trade agendas of 2016, the Hanoi meeting discussed emerging issues and challenges in economic regionalism. The trade ministers outlined ‘trade actions’, to facilitate trade in goods, services and investment and promised to work on developing the internet and digital economy. They debated over topics of protectionism, definition of free and fair trade and policies and regulations that cause trade distortions. The officials also urged countries to comply with the tariff cuts of the environmental goods and emphasized advancing the commitment of member economies to work on the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP).

The trade actions document did not mention the phrase of ‘resist all forms of protectionism’, as emphasized by APEC Leaders last year in Lima, and did not refer to the debate of globalisation and the ‘emergence of protectionist trends’.

Second, the trade minister of Vietnam released a ‘statement of the chair’ summarizing the meeting outcomes. The statement included a qualifier stating that it was an expression of the ‘ununified but prevailing views of APEC economies’. It has been reported in media that the US was not able to give its consent to the statement as it stated – among other things – commitments regarding rolling back protectionist and trade-distorting measures. Mr. Lighthizer spoke to reporters over the US’ desire to promote only freer and fairer trade that increases market efficiency throughout the world.

Third, APEC meetings between 21 member economies also provided a platform to discuss other trade pacts in the region. The WTO Director-General, Mr. Roberto Azevêdo, spoke about preparations over the WTO’s next ministerial conference in December. He acknowledged that cooperation at the regional level has a positive impact for the wider multilateral trading system.

The trade ministers from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries met on the sidelines of the APEC gathering and showed their political willingness to bring the agreement into practice. They agreed to come up with different alternatives to TPP-12 by the time of APEC leader’s meeting in November this year.

The TPP-11 countries have been mulling over options to proceed with the Agreement, given the US’ withdrawal from the pact in January. The group met twice earlier this year in Chile and Canada. While some of the TPP countries, like Japan and New Zealand, have ratified the deal, some are still worried about how to convince their domestic constituencies for a trade pact that no longer includes access to the US market. The latter group is deliberating whether to ratify the agreement as it stands or to revise it taking into account the loss of the US market. The TPP-11 ministers are also debating over the prospect of bringing additional members into the pact, provided the prospective members agree to the TPP’s high standards.

The 16 ministers of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) participating countries also met in Hanoi last week. The RCEP members are eager to conclude their negotiation in 2017 to mark ASEAN’s 50th anniversary. A joint media statement highlighted the areas where there have been significant progress (such as technical cooperation and SMEs) and areas that continue to be sticking points in the negotiation (mainly in trade in goods, services and investment).

Sanchita Basu Das is Fellow and Coordinator of Singapore APEC Study Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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