The 7th Annual Asia-Pacific Trade Facilitation Forum (APTFF) concluded in Wuhan, China this week with a call for countries in the region to increase efforts to simplify and automate trade procedures and move towards paperless trade. The forum was accompanied by a week-long series of side events dedicated to making it easier and cheaper for all to trade across borders.
Organized by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), in collaboration with the Asian Development Bank and the Chinese International Electronic Commerce Center, the forum brought together 300 participants from 50 countries to strengthen regional cooperation on trade facilitation in support of Asia-Pacific’s shared development goals.
The forum held from 19 to 23 October 2015 under the theme of ‘Deepening regional integration through trade facilitation,’ highlighted the removal of cumbersome trade procedures as the cornerstone of strategies aimed at enhancing regional integration, connectivity and sustainable development. The Global Report of the Trade Facilitation and Paperless Trade Implementation Survey 2015, launched during the APTFF provided data on 44 countries in the Asia-Pacific region and suggested that most countries still had much room for improvement in this area.
United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP Dr. Shamshad Akhtar recognized that the forum had made an important contribution towards achieving regional trade priorities, whilst noting many issues still need to be addressed: “The significant participation and high level discussions highlight the importance of trade facilitation to the regional agenda but they also highlight how much work still needs to be done.”
Reducing trade costs in the region was high on the agenda at APTFF, and the forum noted that developing country trade costs still remained much higher, and have fallen more slowly than those of developed economies. There was wide consensus that ratification and implementation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) would help in narrowing the trade cost gap across countries.
At the same time, the forum recognized the need for trade facilitation reforms to go beyond the scope of the WTO TFA. In particular, the importance of improving the efficiency of trade-related services such as transport, logistics and payment services was acknowledged, along with the need to further develop national and regional legal frameworks to enable the electronic exchange of trade data and documents between all stakeholders along the international supply chain.
The forum concluded that swift action on these issues would need to be taken to ensure that countries could benefit from the rapid development of cross-border e-commerce. Progress made in recent months by ESCAP members towards a regional treaty text on the facilitation of cross-border paperless trade was welcomed in this context.
The forum also called for a re-think of trade facilitation strategies focusing on Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and the agricultural sector. It was recognized that SMEs face special constraints in taking advantage of trade facilitation measures and that these should be taken into account during implementation, for example, by developing relevant mobile phone applications. The importance of relying on international standards for sanitary and phytosanitary measures and controls was highlighted, along with the need to develop national and regional agriculture value chain development plans and related capacity building programmes.