UN trade and investment policy body for Asia and the Pacific opens first session

The main policy body on trade and investment for the regional arm of the United Nations in Asia and the Pacific opened its first session today, noting that the region was on the path to recovery from the economic and financial crises but also that the adverse social effects would be felt for a long time.

The Committee on Trade and Investment, which provides policy guidance to the work of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), is meeting through Friday in Bangkok under the theme, “Trade-Led Recovery and Beyond.”

In her remarks to the Committee, Noeleen Heyzer, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP, emphasized the need to enhance connectivity in the region in support of intraregional trade.

Many developing countries in the region, particularly the least developed and landlocked ones, lack sufficient access to markets or are not competitive enough to fully use trade as a tool for wealth generation and poverty reduction. “For these countries effective integration with regional and global trading systems will potentially provide important additional sources of growth,” she said.

Trade measures should also be specifically designed to target the sectors of the economy linked with small businesses, women and the poor to ensure that future trade-led economic growth was pro-poor and benefited people who needed it most, Dr. Heyzer added.

Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya of Thailand said in his inaugural address that regional economic cooperation was essential to promoting sustainable growth and strengthening resilience against future economic crises. He referred to last month’s ASEAN Summit which had launched an initiative to establish an East Asian Free Trade Area comprising the 10 ASEAN members and China, Japan and the Republic of Korea. He also emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships, particularly in infrastructure projects.

The Committee also discussed trade and investment as a means to achieve inclusive and sustainable development. Kiat Sittheeamorn, Thailand Trade Representative, said Asia stood to benefit greatly from trade and should therefore take a pro-active role in promoting trade liberalization. “Trade is a victim of the crisis but a hero of recovery,” he said, adding that Asia should speak with one voice to get the maximum benefit out of trade.

The Committee also noted that Asia was leading the recovery from the crisis and exports were poised for strong growth in 2010. Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, called for Asia to be at the forefront of trade-led growth. “The global economy creates many opportunities; for instance, Asia is already taking a lead in developing green technologies,” he said. In a modern economy, there was a need for a proper balance between the invisible hand of the market and the visible hand of good government.

Damdin Tsogtbaatar, State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Mongolia, noted that the crisis had revealed that the “old economy” was neglected in favour of the “new economy.” “Important traditional sectors such as agriculture and mining cannot easily be replaced by dot.com industries in many countries,” he said.

The first session of the Committee on Trade and Investment, which drew about 100 senior officials, academics and private sector representatives from some 25 countries, is part of a series of events which make up ESCAP’s first Asia-Pacific Trade and Investment Week. Secretary-General Supachai Panitchpakdi of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is scheduled to deliver a keynote address Thursday to the Committee.

Other events during the Week have included the Asia-Pacific Economists’ Conference on “Trade-led Growth in Times of Crisis” to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Asia-Pacific Research and Training Network on Trade (ARTNeT), the OECD/ESCAP Conference on Corporate Responsibility and other workshops.