Pacific trade deal negotiations drag on
There are mixed feelings on the likelihood of the PACER Plus regional trade deal negotiations wrapping up by mid-year, amid speculation that island economies are not in a position to benefit from it.
The Chief Trade Advisor for the Pacific Island countries says he is confident negotiations over the PACER Plus trade agreement can reach a successful conclusion.
Last September Pacific Islands Forum leaders said they wanted the negotiations, which began in 2009, to be concluded by mid-2016.
PACER Plus is described as an opportunity to help Pacific Island countries benefit from enhanced regional trade, but trade ministers from the region's largest island economies, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, recently poured cold water over it.
Johnny Blades reports.
Another year begins and the PACER Plus negotiations are still dragging on. It's yet to reach the groundhog day proportions of the World Trade Organisation's Doha Round, but differences over issues such as tariffs are holding up agreement. The chief trade advisor, Dr Edwini Kessie says apart from Fiji and PNG, island countries recognise the importance of the trade deal.
EDWINI KESSIE: It would promote trade and investment, and allow Pacific island countries to reap the benefits. We have seen the importance of what trade has done for countries like Chile, Hong Kong, Singapore and others. So we want the Pacific Island countries to be able to use trade as an engine of economic growth and development.
The trade justice campaigner with the Pacific Network on Globalisation, Adam Wolfenden, says having a deadline on the negotiations adds pressure that can lead to poor outcomes for the Pacific.
ADAM WOLFENDEN: And what we're seeing from the text already, is that that's where it's headed. PANG has a lot of concerns about the right of governments to regulate their services and investment industries. We're very concerned about the protections and safeguards that are... a very weak standard of safeguards that have been written into the chapters so far. So we'll be more concerned about getting the chapters right rather than just meeting an arbitrary deadline.
However Dr Kessie insists PACER Plus allows Pacific countries to retain the right to regulate, and also to protect infant industries
EDWINI KESSIE: If for example, a country has given a commitment that it would impose a tariff of 3%, but then if that is inadequate to protect a domestic industry then they want to have the flexibility to increase the tariff, let's say, from 3% to 20%. So this is basically the issue and this is what Fiji and PNG are pushing for. So I think Australia and New Zealand appreciate that. They're considering it.
Yet if the recent WTO talks in Nairobi serve as an example, there is no guarantee of agreement between developed and developing countries on such issues. Paul Barker from PNG's Institute of National Affairs says there are concerns that while PACER Plus helps New Zealand and Australian businesses access the islands, it may not offer mechanisms to support local producers.
PAUL BARKER: And the sort of assistance that's needed really is to try and enhance... because of course a country like PNG or Solomon Islands and some of the other Pacific nations are very well able to produce a wide range of agricultural products and so on. But it's the marketing chain, getting those products to markets that's really constrained.
Meanwhile, PNG's Trade Minister Richard Maru says in its current form, PACER Plus will reduce employment opportunities and kill his country's manufacturing sector. It may take intensive negotiations for the mid-year deadline to be met.
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