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Talking Trade blog

Trade outlook for 2016

Published 19 January 2016

Last year was quite extraordinary for anyone interested in trade policy.  Things were happening at the global, regional, and bilateral levels and involved most of the countries in Asia.  What will 2016 look like for trade?

The year ahead promises to be quite exciting.  The global or regional economy might be less robust, but there are ample opportunities for companies to use new trade arrangements or to promote specific policy outcomes that can affect their bottom lines.  Many of the trade changes that are coming into effect across Asia will provide new avenues for companies to generate growth and to explore new market opportunities. 

As always, come see us at the Asian Trade Centre for more details on how your firm can use trade agreements and trade arrangements to your advantage and how we might work together to influence trade policy outcomes for the future.

Implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC):  The AEC came into force at the start of the year.  During 2016, firms should spend time figuring out how to take advantage of existing commitments made by various ASEAN members.[i] 

Government officials have promised to implement the entire set of AEC pledges during 2016.  Many domestic level regulations, laws and procedures have not yet been brought into compliance with ASEAN commitments.  The gaps are particularly large in services and investment and often at the local or provincial levels.

In the diverse context of ASEAN, some members have more enthusiastically embraced the AEC and have made on-the-ground changes as required.  The level of commitment varies across the region, across local provinces, and across sectors or types of commitments.  (As prior Talking Trade posts have noted, please ignore optimistic assessments of levels of implementation drawn from ASEAN’s Scorecard exercise.)

The best use of the AEC, however, may be that companies can use AEC commitments as a platform for engagement with local officials.  If an ASEAN member state has already made a specific commitment, companies can encourage compliance with these existing pledges. 

ASEAN Blueprint 2025:  ASEAN has already started turning its attention to a new set of requirements for the next ten years.  The Blueprint practically promises everything to everyone.  Hence, it also provides an opportunity for savvy firms to help define specific areas where change would be most helpful.

For example, ASEAN could usefully discuss a range of non-tariff barriers.  Up until now, negotiations over various types of barriers like incompatible or inconsistent standards or regulations over things large and small have proceeded slowly.  Firms could help ASEAN focus on the critically important non-tariff obstacles that are hampering trade in a time of economic slowdown in the region.

Clearly, ASEAN will need to do more work to open up services markets and, especially, to think hard about licensing requirements that make it difficult or impossible for companies to provide services across the region.  Given that ASEAN’s own stated objective is to create a market with a free flow of services, these types of barriers to an increasingly important aspect of trade are deeply problematic. 

But ASEAN government officials are often uncertain about their own services markets and have an unclear understanding of the kinds of barriers to trade in services that firms actually face.  Hence, in 2016, it would be extremely helpful for firms to provide specific input to ASEAN about which obstacles should be addressed first in the road to Blueprint 2025.

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP):  Officials in the 16 member countries[ii] involved in the RCEP negotiations have suggested that the trade negotiations will conclude in 2016. 

For now, there are three rounds scheduled.  The first will take place in Brunei next month.  The Asian Trade Centre has been working to get stakeholder outreach sessions in place for the April meetings in Perth, Australia, and New Zealand in mid-year.  Companies should think about what sort of outcomes would be most helpful in this trade arrangement that brings together all the economies in Asia into one agreement. 

RCEP will, likely, not be terribly ambitious which means that the most highly sensitive goods will not be opened with new, deep tariff cuts (or perhaps tariff cuts at all).

But this does not mean that RCEP will not bring benefits to many firms, even for agricultural trade, textiles, and manufactured goods.  Any agreement that links together 16 of the most important markets in the world can provide benefits for companies. 

Even if the tariff cuts and coverage for goods are relatively thin (and this may not ultimately be the case if officials seize opportunities to bold in 2016), RCEP also includes a range of other issues that also matter, including services, investments, e-commerce, intellectual property rights, and so forth.  The final commitments in some of these areas may ultimately be much more ambitious than market liberalization for goods. 

More important for firms—officials basically have one shot at this agreement.  It is quite rare for governments to sit down in the future and engage in a wholesale revision of an existing agreement.  Whatever comes out of the RCEP process is likely to be the trade agreement across Asia for at least the next decade.  Hence, company engagement with governments at the level of individual members and the group is critical to crafting the best possible deal for the future.

Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP):  The Talking Trade blog posts have covered the TPP negotiations quite extensively.  Negotiations in this ambitious, sweeping agreement that links together 12 countries[iii] across the Pacific finished in October.  The year ahead will be largely focused on the domestic level ratification procedures needed to bring the agreement into force.

For most firms active in or across TPP member markets, this agreement should bring substantial benefits.  For non-members, the TPP can also have strong impact. 

Firms should spend time in 2016 evaluating the consequences of TPP entry into force, since much of the TPP commitments also start on the date of entry into force.  This includes not just the dropping of tariffs on roughly 90 percent of all goods to zero on that date, but also most of the changes in services, and investment.  Many of the commitments in areas like intellectual property rights or government procurement procedures will also take effect immediately.

Companies need to know what is in the agreement and think hard about what these new commitments may mean for their own firm, for their suppliers, customers and even for their competitors.  Some firms will need to start changing their supply chains in anticipation of new benefits and consider (or reconsider) investment decisions ahead of TPP entry into force.

Bilateral agreements:  While most Asian governments have been focused on regional trade negotiations and commitments, some have continued to sign and will be implementing bilateral trade agreements in 2016.  The most important may be China/South Korea and South Korea/Vietnam.  If the European Union solves an issue domestically with the investment provisions of FTAs, trade agreements with Singapore and Vietnam are finished and more are being negotiated with ASEAN members like Philippines. 

Multilateral or global trade:  Just before the end of the year, the World Trade Organization (WTO) managed to quietly kill off more than a decade of mostly fruitless negotiations in the Doha Development Agenda.  But it did so without consensus from 160+ member states on what, exactly, ought to be done instead.  Hence, 2016 should be a year of intense discussions and dialogue on the multilateral trade front as officials scramble to create a new agenda for global trade.

In short, 2016 promises to be an extremely active year again on the trade front.  There are many opportunities for companies to shape the agenda on the local, regional and even global level and to address many of the specific roadblocks and barriers that impede trade.  We are looking forward to it!

[i] ASEAN: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

[ii] RCEP: Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

[iii] TPP:  Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States, and Vietnam. 

© The Hinrich Foundation. See our website Terms and conditions for our copyright and reprint policy. All statements of fact and the views, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the author(s).

Dr. Elms is Head of Trade Policy at the Hinrich Foundation in Singapore.  Prior to joining the Foundation, she was the Executive Director and Founder of the Asian Trade Centre (ATC). She was also President of the Asia Business Trade Association (ABTA) and the Board Director of the Asian Trade Centre Foundation (ATCF).

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