In spite of the high importance tagged to multilateralism for quite sometime now, regional cooperation is, in reality, gaining increasing momentum. There are many reasons, including among others failure of multilateralism under the ambit of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to deliver the goods as expected coupled with protectionist tendencies now being increasingly resorted to by many countries. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), being the key driver of regional cooperation on a broad spectrum, has thus reasons to push its agenda in order that countries in the region benefited from cooperation amongst them in all conceivable shades and forms.
The recent high level ESCAP meeting held in Bangkok, Thailand brought together experts from the region to identify challenges and propose recommendations for enhancing regional economic cooperation and integration (RECI) to support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The meeting concluded that fostering RECI in the Asia-Pacific region holds great potential to further reduce poverty and advance the UN's 2030-agenda for sustainable development. The meeting highlighted that RECI has assumed renewed significance given emerging threats from attempts to dislodge globalisation and derail multilateralism, evolving political challenges and dynamics, and opportunities offered by the all-encompassing 2030 Agenda.
Opening the two-day high level meet, United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP Dr. Shamshad Akhtar emphasised that ESCAP has a long-standing mandate for promoting RECI in Asia and the Pacific. "Over the past three decades, RECI has benefited our region significantly - powering trade, economic growth and stability. It has attracted investment as markets were liberalised and competitiveness increased, and strengthened the ability of policymakers to overcome domestic challenges," said Dr. Akhtar.
Delegates attending the meeting also emphasised that RECI and the 2030 Agenda are mutually reinforcing, and hence should be pursued in a way that they support each other. It was noted that RECI can bring about enormous opportunities for increasing income and employment and eventually contribute to achieving the SDGs, in particular the trans-boundary goals.
Some of the factors potentially capable of benefiting countries irrespective of their economic levels, as highlighted in the meeting, are the high prospect of generating opportunities for enhancing employment across the region, thereby contributing directly to decent work and economic growth (Goal 8), industry, innovation and infrastructure (Goal 9), and affordable and clean energy (Goal 7). It also strengthens the means of implementation and contributes towards revitalisation of global partnership for sustainable development (Goal 17).
Four key recommendations figured prominently in the meeting to advance regional economic integration in the region. These included: 1) full implementation of the Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Cross-Border Paperless Trade, which would further enhance market integration, reduce non-tariff barriers and reach multilateral agreements; 2) need to build on existing bilateral intergovernmental agreements to realise the vision of seamless connectivity in the areas of transport, energy and ICT; 3) strengthening of regional financial cooperation and crisis management capacity; and 4) collectively addressing shared vulnerabilities, particularly for trans-boundary disasters.
Given the growing protectionist attitude in the Asia-Pacific export markets, the case for strengthening RECI to support intra-regional trade and investment as an engine of regional growth cannot be questioned. Since the onset of the global financial and economic crisis of 2008, the share of the region's export markets, as a percentage of global GDP, has decreased. With a combined GDP of $27 trillion and a 40 per cent share of global export, robust growth in the Asia-Pacific would set it on course to become the most important market in the world.
It may be recalled that the first Ministerial Conference on RECI was held in December 2013, where representatives of ESCAP member states adopted the Bangkok Declaration, setting the agenda for RECI in the Asia-Pacific region. The Bangkok meeting is a step forward in the direction of economic integration keeping precisely in view the realisation of the SDGs.
That regional integration may be pivotal to improve the lot of many developing countries in the region beside being instrumental in meeting the UN-2030 agenda has been well emphasised in two new reports launched by the ESCAP in partnership with the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA).
While the ESCAP meeting stressed on integration on a broad scale suggesting a roadmap for achieving the SDGs, there can be no denying that focused actions at intra-regional level can also prove to be highly beneficial in respect of trade and commerce. This is particularly so in a situation where countries across the region are better placed to explore and advance their endeavour in trade and commerce. The road map lays out priority areas, implementation arrangements and a process for tracking progress on the SDGs. It also provides for facilitating regional level cooperation with a focus on the means of implementation of the SDGs and in the thematic areas of social development, disaster risk reduction, climate change, management of natural resources, connectivity and energy.
Now, or making the recommendations and the road map to be meaningful and implementable, it is important that institutional mechanisms were created to foster collaboration among countries. For, without a framework of such mechanism, stray initiatives are likely to falter.
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