The Asian Trade Centre, of course, was originally formed for precisely the purpose of bridging the gap between trade officials and companies. It will continue to fill this role and provide input, advice and capacity building for governments and firms in the region.
It will now be able to do so with a firmer sense of what a larger set of businesses view as priority objectives.
ABTA has three pillars: 1) trade agreements; 2) next generation trade issues; and 3) supporting smaller firms.
The three pillars were carefully chosen. ABTA will focus on this relatively narrow set of issues to provide maximum benefits to member companies and clearly targeted recommendations to governments.
Under Pillar 1, early work in ABTA will involve important monitoring and assistance with implementation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP or TPP11) agreement. Absent sustained business attention, it is likely that key commitments will be dropped further down the lists of domestic level implementation priorities in member countries.
The TPP11 agreement, after all, is a massive document with many evolving promises. ABTA will help member states prioritize their efforts and can assist with implementation challenges. This can include capacity building assistance, particularly with domestic level audiences.
ABTA can also assist non-members in understanding the agreement and preparing for future entry.
Pillar 1 also will focus on the ongoing negotiations in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) talks.
ABTA will include member companies from across RCEP economies, giving it a unique platform for business engagement with RCEP officials and valuable input to the unfolding negotiations.
As with TPP, once RCEP closes, implementation will become a priority objective for ABTA.
Pillar 2, Next Generation Trade, is critically important. It is designed to gather business input on rapidly evolving trade issues, like the digital economy, financial technology, or new manufacturing processes, that are dramatically changing business practices.
These transformations are often taking place in spaces where regulations are unclear and trade officials are struggling to adjust traditional rules and procedures to account for new approaches.
Without an organization like ABTA, trade officials and government bureaucrats are likely to create—intentionally or by accident—a system of regulatory fragmentation that will badly serve Asia’s needs.
The feedback mechanisms in the region between government and business that currently exist are insufficient to handle these rapidly moving issues. Government officials are often struggling to understand topics and adjust rules as quickly as new technology and business operations are evolving.
Hence, ABTA can form a vital conduit for discussions, feedback, capacity building and basic education on evolving technology and unfolding opportunities and challenges across Asia. It will allow the region to continue to remain at the cutting edge of many of these new developments.
Finally, Asia does not work if smaller firms are not growing and thriving. These companies form the backbone of every country in the region, comprising up to 95 percent of business activity and most of the jobs in Asia.
The third Pillar is specifically designed to leverage on the interactions between large and small firms and provide specific feedback to governments on the issues faced by small companies in Asia.
The support for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in ABTA takes place through the Asia-Pacific MSME Trade Coalition (AMTC).
ABTA members help shape the overall agenda of support programs to encourage AMTC members to scale up and take advantage of regional economic opportunities. Many ABTA member companies have internal programs to support smaller firms, but these are often difficult for MSMEs to find and leverage in a coherent manner. The Association will craft capacity building workshops and create an integrated framework of support for smaller firms.
AMTC members are also regularly sought to provide their voices to policymakers in the region on trade issues. Most governments struggle to connect to MSMEs, especially those in neighboring countries, and to understand how their policies may impact smaller firms.
ABTA and AMTC are pan-Asian organizations. Membership is inclusive from China to India to New Zealand and everything in between. The larger and more diverse our membership becomes, the more powerful our voices will be for governments in the region.
We are looking forward to expanding our network of companies and individuals interested in making trade work better all across Asia.
***Talking Trade is written by Dr. Deborah Elms, Executive Director, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore***