This week the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) and UNCTAD launched a website that compiles data on non-tariff measures (NTMs) in the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). NTMs include sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards (SPS), technical barriers to trade (TBT), import and export licensing, export restrictions, customs surcharges, anti-dumping and safeguard measures, and other measures which trade in goods. The website, which adopts WTO reporting and classification methodologies, is available here.
The website is a much needed addition to the administration and implementation of the AEC. As I wrote earlier, NTMs which actually operate as non-tariff barriers (NTBs) to trade in goods will frustrate the progress made by eliminating tariffs on intra-ASEAN trade. Using the ERIA and UNCTAD instead of the ASEAN Secretariat perhaps is inconsistent with the goal of strengthening the ASEAN institutions, but it is consistent with ASEAN’s institutional improvisation and if it enhances trade liberalization in the AEC, then so much the better.
However, there are a few questions which are not resolved by this new initiative.
First, the database is limited to “each country's official sources of trade regulations”. That
means that NTMs/NTBs which are not published in the form of legislation or regulation will not be in the database, which is unfortunate. Many NTMs/NTBs are not published, and implemented either informally through non-objective application of procedures by government agencies or through non-published (but written) directives by ASEAN member states such as private rulings or no-objection letters. In short, the database covers de jure measures but not de facto measures, and then only to the extent that these measures had been self-reported by ASEAN member governments (and which reporting was not subject to potential sanctions from an ASEAN institution like the ASEAN Secretariat).
Second, how will this database be updated? ERIA and UNCTAD indicate that they are conducting a qualitative study of how NTMs affect the regional economy, and that this project will be extended to cover the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) countries who are not in ASEAN (e.g., Australia-New Zealand, China, India, Japan and Korea). Both steps will be very useful, but the entire process should be augmented by imposing a continuing (and binding, with potential sanctions if possible) obligation on the ASEAN member states to update the database on a regular basis.
Finally, the most important question is what will be done with this information. Chapter 4 of the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA) already commits the ASEAN member states to eliminate NTMs which actually operate as NTBs. Will the member states use this database as the basis for discussions/negotiations to eliminate the NTBs? Will dispute resolution be necessary? Will the ASEAN member states require prodding from the private sector to do any of this?
The ERIA-UNCTAD database is a good, solid step in the development of the single production base and single market in ASEAN. Hopefully ASEAN will incorporate and expand upon this step by broadening its coverage and deepening the understanding and usage of its underlying data to support the AEC.