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Regional Trade Agreements in the Asia-Pacific: An Evaluation

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The World Bank defines a regional trade agreement (RTA) as a “treaty between two or more governments that define the rules of trade for all signatories.” There has been a substantial increase in the formation of RTAs over the last few decades. While only 50 RTAs were in operation in 1990, more than 300 had come into being in 2020. There is an increasing global interest in RTAs. It is essential to see the commitment and involvement of Asia Pacific countries towards economic agreements to realize the objective of trade liberalization in the region.  In doing so, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) will be useful as a case study for the reasons that it includes the majority of economies in the region as well as it is easy to maintain the needed data for evaluation.

The Asia Pacific region is no exception. Since 1990, RTAs have been seen to overcome economic isolation and cut costs of trade. Moreover, negotiating as a region with potential trading partners offered greater leverage and better deals. The formation of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 1989 helped accelerate trade liberalization and opened up more economic opportunities for the member countries.

Pertinently, during the Shanghai summitof APEC leaders in 2001, a declaration was made to promote free and open trade. The leaders reached an agreement, which allowed members to proceed faster in their trade liberalization if they chose to do so. Since then, APEC leaders have endorsed RTAs even at sub-regional and bilateral levels.

It is important to note that APEC is akin to a forum. It is not a supranational entity like the European Union. APEC allows member countries to take different perspectives and approaches to trade liberalization. Countries like Singapore and South Korea set strict deadlines to complete discussions of trade liberalization trade process with other nation members. Others take it slow.

In the late 1990s, Japan reversed its position on RTAs and began to pursue bilateral trade deals with several countries in the Asia Pacific. The Japanese tended to strike free trade agreements mostly with other members of APEC, including Singapore, Mexico, the Philippines, Malaysia, Chile, Thailand and Indonesia.

The recent surge in RTAs in the Asia Pacific region indicates a political momentum for APEC economies to accelerate regional and unilateral trade liberalization. APEC member states have a clear intention for extensive trade liberalization that acts in parallel with the World Trade Organization (WTO). Therefore, APEC has the potential to boost global trade and be strategically significant to developed countries like Japan, China, the US and Australia for their trade goals.

Most importantly, during the Shanghai summit of APEC leaders in 2001, a declaration was made to promote free and open trade. The agreement allows members to proceed faster in trade liberalization. As a result, APEC leaders have endorsed RTA strategies — including sub-regional and bilateral — that are already effective in the Asia Pacific. Consequently, APEC economies have joined the global market trend toward bilateral and sub-regional preferential trade agreements. Yet this approach ran directly counter to APEC’s free trade and liberalization that should be open to all members. Even as RTAs proliferate, it worth noting that not one free trade agreement signed in the Asia Pacific region since the foundation of APEC lives up to the Bogor Goals.As per this declaration,signed by APEC leaders in 1994, the Asia Pacific region aims for “free and open trade and investment … no later than 2010 for developed countries and the year 2020 for under-developed countries.”

A real issue has been discussed on the trade agreement functions in APEC. For instance, Australia has different types of agreements with various countries within the region.  The Thailand-Australia deal, under this agreement, Australia is permitted to extend no nuisance tariffs — very low tariffs that are costly to collect — on textiles, clothing and footwear beyond 2010. On the other hand, the Australia-US free trade agreement offers no new Australian market access in sugar and fast ferries for American companies, and it places limitations on other goods that break with the spirit of the Bogor Goals. As a result, APEC’s functions have become more and more unclear as there is no unification of trade agreements among APEC economies. This is to show that some economies within the region still practicing protectionism and in some sorts contradict the free and open trade targets.

Fourthly, it is well known that RTAs are very extensive and often cover many trade bases, like the focus on small and medium-sized enterprises and their role in increasing free trade and cooperation. However, reducing and eliminating tariffs is still the leading indicator of measuring the level of cooperation and free trade. The tariff reduction as a mechanism of realizing open trade can also be seen as a way of measurement in instead to evaluate APEC performance. The table below shows the APEC countries’ tariff reductions from 1995 till 2018.

Table. APEC Progress on Tariffs Reduction, 1995-2018.

Members 1995 (%) 2010 (%) 2018 (%)
Australia   7.6 3.3 3
Brunei Darussalam   3.8 3.1 0.2
Canada   9.4 2.9 2.5
Chile   11 6.0 6.0
People’s Republic of China   23 9.3 9.5
Hong Kong, China   – – –
Indonesia   16.2 7.3 8.6
Japan   3.7 2.9 2.8
South of Korea   7.8 7.4 7.5
Malaysia   11 6.5 6.2
Mexico   13.3 7.5 5.7
New Zealand   6.4 2.7 2.4 (2017)
Papua New Guinea   — 3.2 2.2
Peru 13.3 (1997)  5.5 2.8
The Philippines   19.9 6.0 5.7
Russia   12.2 8.6 5.8
Singapore   – – –
Thailand   21 8.9 8.4 (2015)
United States   5.8 3.9 3.8
Vietnam 16.3 (1999)  9.1 8.7

Source: Based on the World Bank database(1995; 2010; 2018).

Average tariffs in APEC countries declined significantly from 16.6% in 1989 to 6.4% in 2005. Moreover, average taxes are now less than 5%. Aside from Hong Kong and Singapore, which both have 0% tariffs, there are eight members — Australia, Japan, Brunei, Canada, Papua New Guinea, the US and New Zealand — that have tariffs at less than 4%. On the other hand, six countries — Chile, South Korea, Indonesia, Russia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Mexico — have a tariff between 5% and 8%.As of 2018, China has the highest tariff at over 9.5%. The Middle Kingdom is still protective of its domestic production. Peru remarkably cut its rate from 13.3% to 2.8% between 1995 and 2018. Thailand also made a noteworthy reduction from 21% in 1995 to almost 8% in 2015. Malaysia reduced its tariffs from 11% in 1995 to 6.2% in 2018.

The above statistics show that protectionism still active in some countries like China, Indonesia and Mexico, Vietnam, Chile and Russia. Therefore, the goals of free trade were not realized as the countries agreed, 2010 and 2020. However, the current situation of coronavirus pandemic cannot be an indicator of economic type or approach as all countries in the world are trying different solutions to protect the whole economy from being collapse. However, the pro-pandemic era can showcase in the Asia Pacific that can change the bilateral and regional relations as countries may cooperate more and open their economies to overcome the cost of COVID-19.

Even the reduction on tariffs and free trade, however, the free trade objective is not fully complete for the bilateral relationships between economies where there are FTAs in force. According to Inter-American Development Bank “When the criterion is expanded to include all applied advalorem tariffs of 5% or lower, the shares expand to 82 percent and 56 percent, respectively, a significant improvement, but still well short of all trade.” Therefore, APEC economies need to work more on bilateral relations by engaging the advantages of FTAs.

The simple average applied dutieson all products have fallen from 6% to 4% in the five APEC industrial economies and from 13% to 7% for the 16 APEC developing economies. Moreover, these reductions in applied rates do not take into account some of the multilateral trade successes over the last few years. For example, the conversion of non-tariff barriers to import duties and increases in binding coverage contribute to trade predictability. As a result of that, this can increase the trade among the countries in the Asia Pacific, as well as; it can give more opportunities for Direct Investment. The smooth movement of investment and non-tariff barriers have increased the level of employment in the region. For example, a lot of companies have moved from China, Japan and Australia to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. This movement has allowed more job opportunities to be fixed on receiving countries.

On the other hand, the ongoing trade liberalization in the Asia Pacific countries has been progressively moving to access RTAs in the region. The reduction of tariffs is the central feature of APEC’s progress toward trade liberalization. For instance, APEC economies have pursued tariff reductions by implementing commitments made in RTAs since the Bogor declaration in 1994. They have been successful in accomplishing the agreement despite differences between countries in implementing tariff reductions based on different approaches used.

Not only have achievements been made in cutting tariffs, but countries have also increased the proportion of goods imported tariff-free and reduced non-tariff measures. Furthermore, countries in the Asia Pacific are trying to open up more services, expand trade and liberalize investment through facilitation initiatives.

Yet new challenges could derail the process. The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns, in particular, could potentially harm the future of RTAs and trade liberalization as it will increase the protectionism approach among some countries like China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Chile and Russia. However, the current situation can also be an opportunity for more open trade to overcome the economic cost and issues raised during the pandemic, as well as, it may give a new direction to RTAs and cooperation in APEC region…

Ramzi is a Researcher, Consultant and Trainer in International Relations, with a focus on regional studies and economic cooperation. A PhD holder from the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), in Kuala Lumpur, he is currently an Assistant Professor at IIUM. He is also the author of The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC): A Study in New Regionalism, 1989-2009, as well as several articles and chapters on Regional Studies, the Asia-Pacific region and Middle East regionalism.

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Economy

Is Myanmar an ethical minefield for multinational corporations?

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Business at a crossroads

Political reforms in Myanmar started in November 2010 followed by the release of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and ended by the coup d’état in February 2021. Business empire run by the military generals thanks to the fruitful benefits of democratic transition during the last decade will come to an end with the return of trade and diplomatic sanctions from the western countries – United States (US) and members of European Union (EU).  US and EU align with other major international partners quickly responded and imposed sanctions over the military’s takeover and subsequent repression in Myanmar. These measures targeted not only the conglomerates of the military generals  but also the individuals who have been appointed in the authority positions and supporting the military regime.

However, the generals and their cronies own the majority of economic power both in strategic sectors ranging from telecommunication to oil & gas and in non-strategic commodity sectors such as food and beverages, construction materials, and the list goes on. It is a tall order for the investors to do business by avoiding this lucrative network of the military across the country. After the coup, it raises the most puzzling issue to investors and corporate giants in this natural resource-rich country, “Should I stay or Should I go?”

Crimes against humanity

For most of the people in the country, war crimes and atrocities committed by the military are nothing new. For instances, in 1988, student activists led a political movement and tried to bring an end to the military regime of the general Ne Win. This movement sparked a fire and grew into a nationwide uprising in a very short period but the military used lethal force and slaughtered thousands of civilian protestors including medical doctors, religious figures, student leaders, etc. A few months later, the public had no better options than being silenced under barbaric torture and lawless killings of the regime.

In 2007, there was another major protest called ‘Saffron Uprising’ against the military regime led by the Buddhist monks. It was actually the biggest pro-democracy movement since 1988 and the atmosphere of the demonstration was rather peaceful and non-violent before the military opened live ammunitions towards the crowd full of monks. Everything was in chaos for a couple of months but it ended as usual.

In 2017, the entire world witnessed one of the most tragic events in Myanmar – Again!. The reports published by the UN stated that hundreds of civilians were killed, dozens of villages were burnt down, and over 700,000 people including the majority of Rohingya were displaced to neighboring countries because of the atrocities committed by the military in the western border of the country. After four years passed, the repatriation process and the safety return of these refugees to their places of origin are yet unknown. Most importantly, there is no legal punishment for those who committed and there is no transitional justice for those who suffered in the aforementioned examples of brutalities.

The vicious circle repeated in 2021. With the economy in free fall and the deadliest virus at doorsteps, the people are still unbowed by the oppression of the junta and continue demanding the restoration of democracy and justice. To date, Assistant Association for Political Prisoner (AAPP) reported that due to practicing the rights to expression, 1178 civilians were killed and 7355 were arrested, charged or sentenced by the military junta. Unfortunately, the numbers are still increasing.

Call for economic disengagement

In 2019, the economic interests of the military were disclosed by the report of UN Fact-Finding Mission in which Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (MEHL) were described as the prominent entities controlled by the military profitable through the almost-monopoly market in real estate, insurance, health care, manufacturing, extractive industry and telecommunication. It also mentioned the list of foreign businesses in partnership with the military-linked activities which includes Adani (India), Kirin Holdings (Japan), Posco Steel (South Korea), Infosys (India) and Universal Apparel (Hong Kong).

Moreover, Justice for Myanmar, a non-profit watchdog organization, revealed the specific facts and figures on how the billions of revenues has been pouring into the pockets of the high-ranked officers in the military in 2021. Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE), an another military-controlled authority body, is the key player handling the financial transactions, profit sharing, and contractual agreements with the international counterparts including Total (France), Chevron (US), PTTEP (Thailand), Petronas (Malaysia), and Posco (South Korea) in natural gas projects. It is also estimated that the military will enjoy 1.5 billion USD from these energy giants in 2022.

Additionally, data shows that the corporate businesses currently operating in Myanmar has been enriching the conglomerates of the generals and their cronies as a proof to the ongoing debate among the public and scholars, “Do sanctions actually work?” Some critics stressed that sanctions alone might be difficult to pressure the junta without any collaborative actions from Moscow and Beijing, the longstanding allies of the military. Recent bilateral visits and arm deals between Nay Pyi Taw and Moscow dimmed the hope of the people in Myanmar. It is now crystal clear that the Burmese military never had an intention to use the money from multinational corporations for benefits of its citizens, but instead for buying weapons, building up military academies, and sending scholars to Russia to learn about military technology. In March 2021, the International Fact Finding Mission to Myanmar reiterated its recommendation for the complete economic disengagement as a response to the coup, “No business enterprise active in Myanmar or trading with or investing in businesses in Myanmar should enter into an economic or financial relationship with the security forces of Myanmar, in particular the Tatmadaw [the military], or any enterprise owned or controlled by them or their individual members…”

Blood money and ethical dilemma

In the previous military regime until 2009, the US, UK and other democratic champion countries imposed strict economic and diplomatic sanctions on Myanmar while maintaining ‘carrot and stick’ approach against the geopolitical dominance of China. Even so, energy giants such as Total (France) and Chevron (US), and other ‘low-profile’ companies from ASEAN succeeded in running their operations in Myanmar, let alone the nakedly abuses of its natural resources by China. Doing business in this country at the time of injustice is an ethical question to corporate businesses but most of them seems to prefer maximizing the wealth of their shareholders to the freedom of its bottom millions in poverty.

But there are also companies not hesitating to do something right by showing their willingness not to be a part of human right violations of the regime. For example, Australian mining company, Woodside, decided not to proceed further operations, and ‘get off the fence’ on Myanmar by mentioning that the possibility of complete economical disengagement has been under review. A breaking news in July, 2021  that surprised everyone was the exit of Telenor Myanmar – one of four current telecom operators in the country. The CEO of the Norwegian company announced that the business had been sold to M1 Group, a Lebanese investment firm, due to the declining sales and ongoing political situations compromising its basic principles of human rights and workplace safety.

In fact, cutting off the economic ties with the junta and introducing a unified, complete economic disengagement become a matter of necessity to end the consistent suffering of the people of Myanmar. Otherwise, no one can blame the people for presuming that international community is just taking a moral high ground without any genuine desire to support the fight for freedom and pro-democracy movement.

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The Covid After-Effects and the Looming Skills Shortage

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coronavirus people

The shock of the pandemic is changing the ways in which we think about the world and in which we analyze the future trajectories of development. The persistence of the Covid pandemic will likely accentuate this transformation and the prominence of the “green agenda” this year is just one of the facets of these changes. Market research as well as the numerous think-tanks will be accordingly re-calibrating the time horizons and the main themes of analysis. Greater attention to longer risks and fragilities is likely to take on greater prominence, with particular scrutiny being accorded to high-impact risk factors that have a non-negligible probability of materializing in the medium- to long-term. Apart from the risks of global warming other key risk factors involve the rising labour shortages, most notably in areas pertaining to human capital development.

The impact of the Covid pandemic on the labour market will have long-term implications, with “hysteresis effects” observed in both highly skilled and low-income tiers of the labour market. One of the most significant factors affecting the global labour market was the reduction in migration flows, which resulted in the exacerbation of labour shortages across the major migrant recipient countries, such as Russia. There was also a notable blow delivered by the pandemic to the spheres of human capital development such as education and healthcare, which in turn exacerbated the imbalances and shortages in these areas. In particular, according to the estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO) shortages can mount up to 9.9 million physicians, nurses and midwives globally by 2030.

In Europe, although the number of physicians and nurses has increased in general in the region by approximately 10% over the past 10 years, this increase appears to be insufficient to cover the needs of ageing populations. At the same time the WHO points to sizeable inequalities in the availability of physicians and nurses between countries, whereby there are 5 times more doctors in some countries than in others. The situation with regard to nurses is even more acute, as data show that some countries have 9 times fewer nurses than others.

In the US substantial labour shortages in the healthcare sector are also expected, with anti-crisis measures falling short of substantially reversing the ailments in the national healthcare system. In particular, data published by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), suggests that the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care.

The blows sustained by global education from the pandemic were no less formidable. These affected first and foremost the youngest generation of the globe – according to UNESCO, “more than 1.5 billion students and youth across the planet are or have been affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. On top of the adverse effects on the younger generation (see Box 1), there is also the widening “teachers gap”, namely a worldwide shortage of well-trained teachers. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), “69 million teachers must be recruited to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030”.

From our partner RIAC

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Accelerating COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake to Boost Malawi’s Economic Recovery

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Lunzu market in southern Malawi. WFP/Greg Barrow

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries including Malawi have struggled to mitigate its impact amid limited fiscal support and fragile health systems. The pandemic has plunged the continent into its first recession in over 25 years, and vulnerable groups such as the poor, informal sector workers, women, and youth, suffer disproportionately from reduced opportunities and unequal access to social safety nets.

Fast-tracking COVID-19 vaccine acquisition—alongside widespread testing, improved treatment, and strong health systems—are critical to protecting lives and stimulating economic recovery. In support of the African Union’s (AU) target to vaccinate 60 percent of the continent’s population by 2022, the World Bank and the AU announced a partnership to assist the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) initiative with resources, allowing countries to purchase and deploy vaccines for up to 400 million Africans. This extraordinary effort complements COVAX and comes at a time of rising cases in the region.

I am convinced that unless every country in the world has fair, broad, and fast access to effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines, we will not stem the spread of the pandemic and set the global economy on track for a steady and inclusive recovery. The World Bank has taken unprecedented steps to ramp up financing for Malawi, and every country in Africa, to empower them with the resources to implement successful vaccination campaigns and compensate for income losses, food price increases, and service delivery disruptions.

In line with Malawi’s COVID-19 National Response and Preparedness Plan which aims to vaccinate 60 percent of the population, the World Bank approved $30 million in additional financing for the acquisition and deployment of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. This financing comes as a boost to Malawi’s COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness project, bringing World Bank contributions in this sector up to $37 million.

Malawi’s decision to purchase 1.8 million doses of Johnson and Johnson vaccines through the AU/African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) with World Bank financing is a welcome development and will enable Malawi to secure additional vaccines to meet its vaccination target.

However, Malawi’s vaccination campaign has encountered challenges driven by concerns regarding safety, efficacy, religious and cultural beliefs. These concerns, combined with abundant misinformation, are fueling widespread vaccine hesitancy despite the pandemic’s impact on the health and welfare of billions of people.  The low uptake of COVID-19 vaccines is of great concern, and it remains an uphill battle to reach the target of 60 percent by the end of 2023 from the current 2.2 percent.

Government leadership remains fundamental as the country continues to address vaccine hesitancy by consistently communicating the benefits of the vaccine, releasing COVID data, and engaging communities to help them understand how this impacts them.

As we deploy targeted resources to address COVID-19, we are also working to ensure that these investments support a robust, sustainable and resilient recovery. Our support emphasizes transparency, social protection, poverty alleviation, and policy-based financing to make sure that COVID assistance gets to the people who have been hit the hardest.

For example, the Financial Inclusion and Entrepreneurship Scaling Project (FInES) in Malawi is supporting micro, small, and medium enterprises by providing them with $47 million in affordable credit through commercial banks and microfinance institutions. Eight months into implementation, approximately $8.4 million (MK6.9 billion) has been made available through three commercial banks on better terms and interest rates. Additionally, nearly 200,000 urban households have received cash transfers and urban poor now have more affordable access to water to promote COVID-19 prevention.

Furthermore, domestic mobilization of resources for the COVID-19 response are vital to ensuring the security of supply of health sector commodities needed to administer vaccinations and sustain ongoing measures. Likewise, regional approaches fostering cross-border collaboration are just as imperative as in-country efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. United Nations (UN) partners in Malawi have been instrumental in convening regional stakeholders and supporting vaccine deployment.

Taking broad, fast action to help countries like Malawi during this unprecedented crisis will save lives and prevent more people falling into poverty. We thank Malawi for their decisive action and will continue to support the country and its people to build a resilient and inclusive recovery.

This op-ed first appeared in The Nation, via World Bank

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