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Delivered by Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

26 August 2021


Excellency, Dr. Sansern Samalapa, Vice Minister of Commerce,

Excellency, Mr. Sinit Lertkrai, Deputy Minister of Commerce,

Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, Former Director-General of WTO and former Secretary-General of UNCTAD,

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

This event is being hosted at a very crucial time. COVID-19 started as a health pandemic but has unfolded into an economic and humanitarian crisis, plunging the world into the worst economic recession in many years.

The pandemic, which was thought to be brought under control  last year, has now again resurfaced with new waves of infections. Earlier predictions of economic recovery and growth forecasts have been revised downward in many countries/economies including our region.

Over the past two decades, the Asia-Pacific region made extraordinary progress towards development, relying heavily on trade and investment as engines of growth. However, the current pandemic has slowed trade and investment flows and disrupted supply chains. 

More concerning, countries in our region have seen a reversal in their earlier socio-economic gains and their progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals has been put at risk. Our Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report from ESCAP shows that the region fell short of its 2020  targets, even before the global or the COVID-19 pandemic. On its current trajectory, the region may achieve less than 10 per cent of the SDG targets. Therefore, there is an added urgency to ensure that responses to the crisis include measures to accelerate progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development or SDGs.

The crisis shows that no country is immune to global risks nor can they fight them alone. Coordinated and coherent actions at all levels of government and between all countries, supported by international organizations, are needed more than ever to foster public trust and meet the most immediate needs while maintaining political and economic stability and social cohesion. 

May I emphasize the role of regional cooperation. It is highly encouraging that Asia-Pacific economies have continued working together during the pandemic to recover faster and build back better or build forward better.

For example, in South-East Asia, ASEAN countries developed and adopted a comprehensive recovery framework. Despite closing international borders, countries continued to facilitate the supply of essential items, including medical equipment and now vaccines. These good practices must be continued and further institutionalized for future crises for us to be better prepared.

There are other encouraging examples. Despite the unprecedented economic slowdown and growing trend toward protectionism outside the region, 15 countries in our region came together to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November 2020. This is an important milestone for Asian and Pacific integration. Intra-RCEP trade is larger than that of the entire Asia-Pacific region with North America and Europe combined, and brings together economies representing almost one third of the world population and GDP.

RCEP, together with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) signed in 2018 and a growing number of inter-regional trade agreements (such as between Viet Nam and the Eurasian Economic Union), RCEP shows the growing importance of regional cooperation and integration frameworks. Given their size and ambition, these will shape or re-shape the multilateral economic system in the years ahead.

In that regard, it will be important that these regional partnership agreements be implemented in full, in line with WTO rules, and based on international standards and good practices.

I would therefore like to invite all countries to take full advantage of existing regional and global initiatives and tools developed at the United Nations or through relevant international bodies, including Thailand, in this regard.

For example, ESCAP member States adopted the Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Cross-Border Paperless Trade in Asia and the Pacific which was endorsed by member States in 2016, as an enabling treaty to accelerate trade digitalization. Now it becomes very important in time of the COVID-19. We rely more and more on digitalization, including trade digitalization. It becomes a key and very high priority. This is to complement the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement. This treaty entered into force in February 2021, and can greatly facilitate the harmonized implementation of paperless trading provisions now found in essentially all e-commerce chapters of regional trade agreements.

I would also like to call on all countries to mainstream the Sustainable Development Goals into these new regional economic partnerships and their implementation. Evidence suggests that a significant obstacle to advancing sustainable development is the extent of regulatory and policy frameworks that are not aligned or coherent with sustainable development objectives.

The Digital and Sustainable Regional Integration Index (DigiSRII) developed by ESCAP has demonstrated that the social and environmental dimensions are often lacking in the integration efforts of our region. Hence, implementation plans of existing regional integration agreements, as well as provisions in future agreements, should give greater consideration to the need to protect labour rights and the environment, promote gender equality and take into account the special needs of SMEs and less developed member States. ESCAP has rolled out a number of online training and capacity building programmes in this regard, including in collaboration with ITD.

Excellencies, Distinguished participants, Colleagues,

Unprecedented crises requires unprecedented responses. Any attempt to jumpstart efforts towards full implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and building back better from COVID-19 will require transformative and integrated economic, social and environmental policies to address the underlying causes of vulnerability, including these persistent issues of inequalities; weak governance; inadequate public services and infrastructure, the depletion of natural resources and the degradation of biodiversity and climate change.

The COVID-19 pandemic as well as the looming climate change catastrophe call for enhancing policy coherence to effectively work across sectors and levels of government to coordinate long-term recovery and implementation actions, and overcome obstacles such as immediate economic and social pressures crowding out longer-term recovery initiatives. Therefore, an international forum such as this event can play an important role in triggering discussions that will pave the way for more coordinated policy strategies within and between countries. Sharing good practices observed across regional economies and drawing on them will be key to developing increasingly coherent and harmonized policy responses to ensure a sustainable and inclusive recovery.

I am pleased to reaffirm that ESCAP stands ready to continue and deepen collaboration with all relevant stakeholders in all member States in this endeavour, to accelerate progress towards sustainable development.

Thank you for your attention. I wish you a very successful event.

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