Georgia on My Mind: Atlanta ABAC meeting takes place during worrying times for trade

In her valedictory blog as she prepares to step down from her term on the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC), ABAC NZ member Katherine Rich welcomes some wins for open markets, but also reflects on the worrisome protectionist pressures starting to affect global business and trade in in the Asia-Pacific “engine room” of the world economy.

Whenever I hear Ray Charles sing, “I have Georgia on my mind” (written by Hoagy Carmichael, but I digress) I always think of my daughter, but in the next couple of weeks I will also be thinking about the US State as I prepare to go to Atlanta for my final ABAC meeting.  

When I first joined ABAC back in 2014, the world was a very different place.  Economies at last seemed to be recovering from the Global Financial Crisis, and it appeared that we were collectively “getting back to business”, with prospects for progress in the WTO, a myriad of new multi-country FTAs under negotiation, and a dynamic, liberalising APEC and ABAC agenda, most ably led by our Chinese colleagues. 

Bittersweet: successes, but hard to sustain the trajectory

APEC/ABAC achievements that year included an inspiring commitment by regional Leaders to a broad-based agenda for sustainable and inclusive growth.  This entailed both renewed efforts to reduce trade barriers in the short term, and a determination to accelerate progress towards an eventual ‘Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific’ (originally an ABAC idea, by the way).  Detailed roadmaps to enhance regional food security (including food and agriculture trade), connectivity and a myriad of other issues were also agreed.

As I look ahead to Atlanta, I leave with a bittersweet sense of pride at ABAC’s successes and thought-leadership over these last five years, but also deep concern about what has happened to that positive momentum of 2014.

A worrying rise in protectionism…

Most worryingly, far from the liberalising sentiments of 2014, we are seeing a strong rise in protectionist rhetoric and action.   WTO figures show that last year saw the sharpest-ever increase in trade-restrictive measures, now covering over US$480 billion worth of trade.   Tariffs, anti-dumping and other trade remedies, and the so-called “non-tariff barriers” (NTBs) are all making a comeback.  I have been particularly dismayed to see the uptick in NTBs, subtle but noxious restrictions which erode benefits for consumers and tilt the playing field against exporters, and which are particularly prevalent in the food and agriculture sectors.  In many cases, NTBs have a greater impact than tariffs.

…but also a hopeful development on non-tariff barriers

So it is hugely positive that last December, APEC Trade Ministers agreed a set of ‘Cross-Cutting Principles on Non-Tariff Measures’.  These were in fact closely based on our ABAC Cross-Cutting Principles on NTMs/NTBs, the development of which I led through 2017/18 – and of which I am immensely proud.  While many NTMs are aimed at legitimate public policy goals, such as food safety, biosecurity or consumer information, sometimes – either by accident or design – they become barriers to trade.  ABAC’s and APEC’s principles are designed to nip this unwelcome metamorphosis in the bud.    I hope that I will see those principles brought to life in trade agreements and policy approaches in the region in years to come.

The NTB story also shows how the business community can really help to shape policies that drive inclusive and sustainable economic growth – NTBs are a particularly heavy burden on small businesses and developing economies.  Likewise I have been proud to take part in the many ABAC initiatives to enhance women’s economic empowerment in business and trade through the last five years, something which is so fundamental to lasting prosperity.    

New Zealand and ABAC/APEC looking ahead

I know I leave ABAC, and the New Zealand team, in good heart.   ABAC is currently working on its “Vision” for the region post-2020, a workstream being led by my colleague Phil O’Reilly, who takes over from me as Co-Chair of the Regional Economic Integration working group.  Phil will also champion ongoing support for the WTO as the vital foundation of our global trading system. He’s a tireless champion for New Zealand offshore as is my colleague Tenby Powell, who has been active on the small business agenda, and is now driving that inclusive growth story via the Digital and Innovation Working Group that he co-chairs. I thank them for their support and their comradery.

In particular I would like to pay tribute to the advice, the support and expertise of Stephen Jacobi and Stephanie Honey, the ABAC Secretariat. Their passion for trade policy, promoting New Zealand’s interests and the work they do above and beyond any contract has been inspiring. The work of our MFAT officials offshore like Alison Mann, Justin Allen, Mark Talbot and their teams also deserves high praise.  As a final thank you I would like to thank Prime Ministers John Key and Jacinda Ardern for allowing me to serve on ABAC these last 5 years. Participating in ABAC meetings, representing New Zealand on ABAC and in particular accompanying them to ABAC’s Dialogue during APEC weeks was my honour.    

But onwards to the future. In 2021 New Zealand is hosting APEC.  This is a hugely important opportunity for the New Zealand business community to help shape the future of our region, and to make connections and showcase the best of what we have to offer along the way.  I hope, in the immortal sung by Ray Charles, “the road leads back” – not in this case to Georgia, but rather to an open, dynamic, resilient, inclusive and sustainable APEC region for all of us. New Zealanders depend on it.

Katherine Rich is the CEO of the New Zealand Food & Grocery Council, and a member of the APEC Business Advisory Council.

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