While applied tariffs in the Asia-Pacific region have halved over the past two decades, the number of non-tariff measures (NTMs) – policy regulations other than tariffs affecting international trade – has risen significantly.
The Asia-Pacific Trade and Investment Report 2019 (APTIR) by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) finds that NTMs are now affecting around 58 per cent of trade in Asia and the Pacific.
One reason for the rise of NTMs is their growing popularity as weapons of trade policy in regional and global trade tensions. This can include government procurement limitations, subsidies to export and import restrictions as well as import and export bans through unilateral or multilateral sanctions.
Meeting these complex and often opaque rules can require significant resources, affecting in particular SMEs. However, the report also notes that NTMs as policy instruments can often be legitimate.
Most of the NTMs are technical regulations, such as sanitary and phytosanitary requirements on food. The average cost of these measures alone amounts to 1.6 per cent of gross domestic product, roughly US$1.4 trillion globally. But they also serve important purposes such as protection of human health or the environment; and can even boost trade under certain conditions.
While costly to traders, failure to have essential technical NTMs in place or their poor implementation may have serious detrimental impacts on sustainable development. For example, the report refers to the lack of NTMs covering illegal fishing and timber trade in many Asia-Pacific economies.
It also points to the high economic costs for the region associated with the African swine fever epidemic, which can be linked to deficient implementation of NTMs.
At the same time, new regulations on trade in plastic waste arising from amendment to the Basel Convention are promising. NTMs are often very different between countries, making it difficult for firms to move goods from one country to another.
Regulatory cooperation at the regional and multilateral level and the use of international standards when designing or updating NTMs is therefore important in overcoming challenges related to the heterogeneity of regulations.
Looking ahead, the report also highlights that trade costs of NTMs can be significantly reduced by moving to paperless trade and cross-border electronic exchange of information.
This could lower costs by 25 per cent on average in the region, generating savings for both governments and traders of over US$600 billion annually.