UN kicks off first Asia-Pacific Trade and Investment Week

Region needs to rebalance sources of economic growth, ESCAP chief says

The regional arm of the United Nations in Asia and the Pacific today kicked off a weeklong focus on trade and investment issues, with the top UN official here urging a rebalancing of the region’s sources of economic growth.

Noeleen Heyzer, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), said research indicated that regional economic cooperation could be another driver of growth for a region traditionally reliant on trade with developed countries.

“Some of the world’s largest economies are in our region, [and] a more unified market of East Asian countries would be a potential economic power house and an emerging centre of gravity of the world economy,” she told 150 trade researchers and policymakers at the Asia-Pacific Trade Economists’ Conference. “Strengthening regional connectivity will leverage our complementary strengths and synergies.”

The two-day conference was the lead-off event for the inaugural Asia-Pacific Trade and Investment Week, which also will feature the first session of ESCAP’s Committee on Trade and Investment. UNCTAD Secretary-General Supachai Panitchpakdi is scheduled to deliver a keynote address Thursday to the Committee. Other events during the Week include the OECD/ESCAP Conference on Corporate Responsibility and other workshops.

In her remarks, Dr. Heyzer called for streamlining trade procedures, saying that average gains from improved trade facilitation would far exceed those that might be achieved through further removal of tariff barriers. She also said untangling the “noodle bowl” – consolidating the 151 existing bilateral and regional trade agreements – would encourage increased levels of economic integration, and that trade should contribute to development that would include the poor and be environmentally sustainable.

The Economists’ Conference on “Trade-led Growth in Times of Crisis” commemorates the fifth anniversary of the Asia-Pacific Research and Training Network on Trade (ARTNeT), and features discussions by prominent trade economists. Panellists today noted that although the three countries that have weathered the financial crisis with the least damage were in Asia – China, India and Indonesia – the global crisis nevertheless required the region’s leaders to fundamentally rethink their trade policies.

“The global imbalances between savings and investments between the world’s countries will need to be addressed in order to find real solutions,” said Alan Deardorff, Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan.

Debapriya Bhattacharya, Special Advisor on Least Developed Countries at the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), stressed the need for a global system of exchange rate management, as current speculation on exchanges rates were sustaining the economic imbalances.

Meanwhile, Asians could no longer be “free-riders on the multilateral trading system,” said Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “Asian intellectuals need to provide intellectual leadership.”

Also speaking today was Patrick Low, Chief Economist of the World Trade Organization (WTO).