With few tangible and immediate results, Asean members agreed this week to tackle new challenges that arise in joining free trade agreements (FTAs) and increase its role in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The decision was made at the 35th High Level Task Force on Asean Economic Integration (HLTF-EI) meeting, held last week in Bangkok.
“There are ‘new issues’ that have risen with regards to negotiating FTAs, particularly with developed countries,” Boonyarit Kalayanamit, permanent secretary at the Commerce Ministry, said yesterday at a press conference.
“These are issues such as labour force standards, intellectual property, sustainability and the environment,” he explained, noting that FTAs no longer concern only trade liberalisation.
Last week’s meeting will be followed by the Asean economic ministers’ retreat, to be held in Phuket next month, with Thailand as Asean chair continuing to push for regional economic integration.
The meeting agreed that the relevant Asean committees should strengthen their efforts to assess the level of readiness of each Asean member to reach the international standard for these new issues, he said.
“Admittedly, Asean’s regulatory standard is still lagging behind on these new issues, and work needs to be done to raise them up to the international standard so that future obstacles to FTA negotiations between Asean and other countries can be reduced,” Boonyarit said.
The meeting agreed there was a need for a proper timeline to study these new issues, as well as the implementation of the necessary measures to tackle them. Yet no specific timeline was set at the meeting, he said.
However, the task force agreed on the need for Asean to increase its role in reforming the WTO, he continued.
One such reform effort is a seminar, “WTO Reform: Perspectives for Asean Countries”, to continue today after kicking off yesterday.
Currently, the WTO’s general council – the highest-level decision-making body of the organisation – is chaired by Ambassador Sunanta Kangvalkulkij of Thailand.
“Hence, Thailand has called on other Asean countries for a concerted effort to reform the WTO so that it can increase its role globally in the face of new issues,” Boonyarit said. He did not suggest the particular aspects of the WTO that need reforming.
Turning to the issue of tackling non-tariff measures (NTM) between Asean members, Boonyarit noted that the Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia has been aiding Asean in conducting regional research to assess the total cost of trade transactions as a result of NTMs.
The study results should be released in the middle of this year, he said. “When they are released, we can determine our policy direction and achieve our goal of reducing trade transaction costs.”
The combined members of Asean currently make up Thailand’s largest trading partner. In 2018, 22.69 per cent of Thailand’s total trade went to Asean, valued at some Bt3.67 trillion. In January, Thai-Asean trade was valued at Bt285 billion, a 3.18 per cent growth contraction year on year, according to Ministry of Commerce figures.