Guest blog: Asia-Pacific collaboration is the best strategy for COVID-19

by | Mar 31, 2020 | Trade Working Blog | 0 comments

Rachel Taulelei, CEO of Kono and Chair of the APEC Business Advisory Council for 2021, discusses how the Asia-Pacific business community is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ko te whare tū ki te koraha

he kai mā te ahi; ko te whare

tū ki te pā tūwatawata

he tohu nō te rangatira

A solitary house will succumb to fire.

A house in the stockaded pā is the sign of a chief.

This whakataukī, or Māori proverb, speaks of fortitude.  Of the need to work together.

In this surreal new COVID-19 landscape, there is an understandable human urge to slam shut the gates and cut off ties with the rest of the world: the crisis is alarmingly close to home and touches us all.  It is clear, however, that a strategy of going it alone in the face of a global threat will not serve any of us well.  Instead, working collectively on the medical, social and economic responses to the pandemic will help us – separately and together – to come out the other side in the best possible shape.

What is the Asia-Pacific business community doing?

A group of business leaders from the Asia-Pacific, the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC), under the leadership of Dato Rohana Tan Sri Mahmood of Malaysia, and which I am privileged to co-chair, has just written to the region’s Trade and Foreign Ministers to call for greater collaboration and cooperation in the region to counter the most severe impacts of the pandemic and help to safeguard the wellbeing of all of our communities.

ABAC is the “voice of business” of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.  ABAC members, drawn from all 21 APEC economies, are tasked with providing advice to APEC leaders on the business community’s concerns.  Along with my fellow Kiwi members, Toni Moyes and Malcolm Johns, I was appointed late last year by the Prime Minister to help develop recommendations about how best to build an inclusive, sustainable and prosperous Asia-Pacific region, where our businesses and our communities can thrive.  It is fair to say that we had no idea that we would end up facing a challenge of quite such magnitude, and quite so quickly! 

But ABAC stands united.   We have come together – virtually, naturally – to urge Ministers to take collaborative action on a number of fronts.

Saving lives is the first priority…

Most important, of course is saving lives.  We can help to achieve this by sharing medical know-how across the region, and by making sure that every economy has access to the tools they need, including medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and basic protective gear such as soap and face masks.   Unfortunately, we have seen a dramatic increase in countries imposing trade barriers such as export bans and tariffs on these products.  ABAC is calling on APEC Ministers to lead the way in eliminating these export bans and quickly phasing out tariffs on these vital tools – not just in the region, but through a global effort in the World Trade Organisation.   I’m very proud to see that New Zealand’s Trade Minister David Parker has announced the immediate elimination of tariffs on COVID-19 related medical and hygiene products.

“Quite simply, protectionism is bad medicine.” 

…but keeping the wheels of the economy turning matters too

As a business community, ABAC is also naturally very concerned about the impacts on businesses, trade flows and economies more broadly, and how these might flow through to our communities.  A particular worry is how workers, small businesses and the self-employed can weather the rapid rise in unemployment, bankruptcies and severe disruptions to business operations, cashflow and supply chains that we are seeing around the region.   Sharing ideas and collaborating on region-wide coordinated economic approaches will be key here too.  Again, New Zealand’s forward thinking in this area has been great to see, with last week’s initiative with Singapore to keep supply chains open and minimise trade disruption now supported by four other APEC economies (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada and Chile) along with Myanmar, Lao and Uruguay.

After the worst of the storm has passed, then what?

We also need to lay the groundwork for an eventual recovery.  Sadly, the pandemic arrived at a time when we had already seen the global trading environment blighted by scores of new tariffs and subsidies in the last few years, with real consequences for global growth.  Concerningly, we are now starting to see countries trying to curb exports of staple food products.  Now is not the time to be banning food exports to neighbours in need.  Even in New Zealand, where we take for granted the bounty of our primary sector, we are not self-sufficient in many foods (for example, grains such as wheat and rice) – and nor should we be, since it makes far better sense to source those products, along with a varied and diverse range of others, from countries that produce them best.  We should not add a food security crisis to COVID-19 for our most vulnerable neighbours.

Let’s put an end to protectionism

We are all in this together.  If we give in to protectionism now, the eventual work of restarting economic activity and rebuilding business and investor confidence, once the worst of the storm has passed, will be all the more difficult in every economy.  Quite simply, protectionism is bad medicine.  Our ABAC letter calls on Ministers to announce a standstill on all new trade-restrictive measures for the rest of this year and to agree on concrete ways to reduce protectionist measures going forward.

New Zealand will chair APEC and ABAC next year.   It was always going to be an important and exciting year, and one which would call on all our most creative thinking and determination to help steer the region to a more inclusive, sustainable and prosperous future – but now, the stakes are so much higher.   We can only do it if we all pull together.

He waka eke noa.

We are all in this together.

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