Chinese Taipei

APEC Trade Ministers’ Virtual Meeting on July 25 — Declaration on Facilitating the Movement of Essential Goods during COVID-19

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) has twenty-one members whose territories borders the Pacific Ocean. The twenty-one members include Australia; Brunei Darussalem; Canada; Chile; China; Hong Kong, China; Indonesia; Japan; Malaysia; Mexico; New Zealand; Papua New Guinea; Peru; the Philippines; Republic of Korea; Russia; Singapore; Chinese Taipei; Thailand; United States; and Viet Nam. According to a 2019 USTR note on U.S.-APEC Trade Facts, APEC countries account for 38% of the world’s population, 60% of the world’s GDP and 47% of world trade. See https://ustr.gov/trade-agreements/other-initiatives/asia-pacific-economic-cooperation-apec/us-apec-trade-facts#:~:text=APEC%20has%2021%20members%2C%20referred,percent%20of%20the%20world’s%20trade.

In May 2019, APEC Ministers Responsible for Trade (“MRTs”) issued a statement on COVID-19 recognizing both the centrality for all members in halting the spread of the pandemic and the need for members to also focus on remedying the economic challenges flowing from the pandemic. Like the G20 and other groups, APEC MRTs recognized the importance of keeping markets open, of limiting emergency restrictive measures and ensuring such measures are “targeted, proportionate, transparent, temporary and should not create unnecessary barriers to trade, and are consistent with WTO rules.” APEC MRTs encouraged cooperation and the sharing of information and more. See Statement on COVID-19 by APEC Ministers Responsible for Trade, 5 May 2020, WT/GC/213. The May 2019 statement is embedded below.

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At the July 25, 2020 virtual meeting of MRTs, the ministers issued a joint statement and included as Annex A the Declaration on Facilitating the Movement of Essential Goods. See MRTs joint statement, https://www.apec.org/Meeting-Papers/Sectoral-Ministerial-Meetings/Trade/2020_MRT; Annex A,https://www.apec.org/Meeting-Papers/Sectoral-Ministerial-Meetings/Trade/2020_MRT/Annex-A. Both are embedded below.

Ministers-Responsible-for-Trade-Virtual-Meeting-Joint-Statement-2020

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The joint statement reiterates the May 2019 key points and incorporates the Declaration on Facilitating the Movement of Essential Goods “which is a clear indication of the region’s continued support for WTO work.” The MRTs “recognize the need for discussions to reduce non-tariff barriers which restrict trade in essential goods.” There are other supportive statements about the importance of WTO work. “We encourage continued constructive engagement on WTO issues, including in the lead-up to the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference.” At the same time, the MRTs are looking to the development of a “post-2020 Vision” which they are hopeful leaders can launch at the end of 2020. Presumably, such a vision will include trade- related components which may include reforms at the WTO or simply be regional cooperation on certain important topics (supply chain issues on adequacy of supplies, e-commerce, movement of people as region recovers from COVID-19, etc.).

The Declaration on Facilitating the Movement of Essential Goods has ten specific actions that are declared.

The first two deal with export restrictions and prohibitions. The first is that each APEC member will ensure that any emergency trade measures introduced to address COVID-19 are consistent with WTO rules. The second commits APEC members to notify all such measures in accordance with WTO obligations.

The third declared action addresses non-tariff barriers. Specifically APEC members “are encouraged to work together to identify and resolve any unnecessary barriers to trade in essential goods.”

The next five declared actions pertain to trade facilitation — to expedite and facilitate the flow and transit of essential goods; to enhance coordination, efficiency and transparency of border clearance of essential goods; expediting the release of essential goods upon arrival; facilitating the entry, transit and departure of air cargo dealing with essential medical goods; abiding by the International Health Regulations of 2005.

The ninth declared action deals with tariffs and while not committing APEC members to liberalize tariffs for essential medical supplies, notes that some economies have taken such liberalizing actions and notes that the business community supports such action.

The last statement deals with reviewing progress on the APEC initiatives annually until COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency.

Conclusion

Many countries and customs territories around the world have expressed objectives which are generally not significantly different than those put forward by APEC members.

With the large share of global trade accounted for by APEC members and with similar-type commitments by the G20 (which includes major members of the EU and has the EU participating), one would think it should be possible to obtain WTO commitments along similar lines to the APEC Declaration. The Declaration would need to have added some of the developing country and least developed country needs that have been already presented to the WTO so that the concerns of all are addressed.

While the WTO is doing an excellent job of providing information about the pandemic and trade measures taken by Members (at least those notified), the WTO Members have yet to get behind a set of principles that all Members can sign off on. Perhaps the APEC MRT joint statement and Declaration on Facilitating the Movement of Essential Goods provides a good starting point for the full WTO membership. While some WTO Members have not wanted to address COVID-19 issues during the pandemic, obviously collective action during the pandemic would be most effective. The post-pandemic needs also should be addressed but can await individual and group developments of views.