Excellencies, Distinguished participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to join you today to share the experience and contribution of ESCAP to regional integration in tackling the COVID-19 challenges and attaining the SDGs.
As a regional development arm of the United Nations for Asia and the Pacific region, ESCAP has been actively promoting regional and inter-regional cooperation and integration in the region over the past seven decades.
ESCAP facilitated the establishment of the Asian Development Bank in the 1960’s and also supported the development of the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement in the 1970’s, one of the very first regional trade agreements and the only one to date with both China and India as members.
ESCAP also provides the Secretariat for a number of intergovernmental agreements to facilitate road and rail transport across the wider Asia region, facilitating inter-regional trade and transport connectivity between South, South-East, Central Asian regions, as well as with Europe.
Most recently, ESCAP has developed regional frameworks to facilitate ICT infrastructure development and trade digitalization.
All these regional institutions, initiatives and agreements are important building blocks of a strong multilateral system to achieve sustainable development and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
ESCAP’s Theme Study 2021 on “Beyond the pandemic: Building back better from crises in Asia and the Pacific”, finds that any attempt to tackle the COVID-19 challenges and safeguard SDGs will require coordinated approaches based on cooperation nationally, regionally as well as globally.
Importantly, the COVID-19 crisis has made obvious the need to keep trade flowing intra and inter-regionally, if only to ensure that life-savings equipment and medicines can be made accessible to all at a reasonable cost and as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, existing trade agreements have been found to be less than fully effective in keeping trade flowing, at least during the early stages of the pandemic.
Accordingly, ESCAP, in collaboration with UNCTAD, WTO and other UN regional commissions as well as academic and civil society organizations spearheaded discussions on model provisions for trade in times of crisis and pandemic in regional trade agreements.
A handbook for trade policy makers and negotiators is in the final stages of development, to provide guidance on how to balance the need for policy space during crises and trade resilience.
It is highly encouraging that Asia-Pacific economies have continued working together during the pandemic to recover faster and build back better and greener.
For example, ASEAN countries developed and adopted a Comprehensive Recovery Framework.
Despite the unprecedent economic slowdown and growing trend toward protectionism outside the region, 15 Asia-Pacific countries came together and signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November 2020.
This is an important milestone for Asia-Pacific integration.
Intra-RCEP trade is larger than that of the whole Asia-Pacific region with North America and Europe combined, and brings together economies representing almost a third of the world population and GDP.
Together with the signing of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in 2018, RCEP shows the growing importance of regional cooperation and integration frameworks and how these will shape or re-shape the multilateral economic system in the years ahead.
In this context, please allow me to highlight three key priorities for your further consideration and deliberation.
First, I would like to call on all countries to mainstream the sustainable development goals into to these new regional economic partnerships and their implementation.
The Digital and Sustainable Regional Integration Index (DigiSRII), developed by ESCAP, has demonstrated that the social and environmental dimensions are often lacking in the regional integration efforts in Asia and the Pacific.
Second, let us give greater consideration to the need to protect labor rights and the environment, promote gender equality and take into account the special needs of SMEs and less developed member countries in the implementation plans of existing regional integration agreements, as well as provisions in future agreements.
Third, it will also be important that these regional partnership agreements be implemented in full, based on international standards and good practices.
To move forward, I would like to invite countries to take full advantage of existing regional and global initiatives and tools developed at the United Nations or through relevant international bodies.
I would like to recognize that ESCAP member States adopted the Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Cross-Border Paperless Trade in Asia and the Pacific in 2016, as an enabling treaty to accelerate trade digitalization and to complement the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement.
As of February 2021, this treaty has now entered into force, and can greatly facilitate the harmonized implementation of paperless trading provisions found in essentially all e-commerce chapters of regional trade agreements.
A strong networked multilateralism inspired economic system can effectively support the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.
ESCAP stands ready to continue and deepen collaboration with all relevant global and regional partners and stakeholders to chart the pathways to the post-COVID-19 era.
I wish you a very successful Conference.
Thank you for your attention.