On 21 January, the 4th ARISE Plus Roundtable Discussion brought together representatives of AMSs’ Governments, the ASEAN private sector (ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ASEAN‐BAC) and the ASEAN Joint Business Councils (JBCs), inter alia), and trade facilitation experts to discuss the new e‐Platform for Consultations with the Private Sector (e‐Platform), as well as the progressive operationalization of the ASEAN Trade Repository (ATR) and the ASEAN Solutions for Investments, Services and Trade (ASSIST).

A live online simulation of the e‐Platform was presented by the ASEAN Secretariat to show the mechanics and operation of this new tool. New features and enhancements of the ATR and ASSIST tools were also introduced. The morning sessions were also an opportunity for discussants to explore effective ways and solutions to deal with the issues and challenges faced by both the public and private sectors with regard to these ASEAN trade facilitation initiatives. This part of the Roundtable Discussion was an open dialogue between ASEAN public and private sector representatives.

Key takeaways from the discussions

1) Both the public and private sectors welcome and appreciate the establishment of the e‐Platform as a tool that could improve, simplify and render more efficient, effective and expedited the process of consultation between private sector representatives and ASEAN Institutions (i.e., ASEAN Secretariat, the relevant ASEAN Sectoral Bodies, and the ASEAN Member States’ representatives). Both governments/public and private sectors agreed that keeping the e‐Platform simple is the right approach.

2) The private sector acknowledged that the e‐Platform would enhance the exchange of views between the ASEAN JBCs with ASEAN sectoral bodies and promote active participation of the stakeholders. The private sector stressed the importance of private sector consultation, which is an opportunity to improve the quality of the ASEAN final guidelines, frameworks, regulations, etc. by bringing in the expertise and perspectives from the private sector. The private sector also indicated that the current process of ASEAN consultation is too formal, slow and difficult to access. In addition, the e‐Platform would address the challenges of getting the right expertise before the specific ASEAN Sectoral Bodies.

3) The private sector also suggested for the e‐Platform to be used as a two‐way consultation tool, so that questions could be asked not only by the private sector to ASEAN Sectoral Bodies, but also by the AMSs’ Governments and/or ASEAN Sectoral Bodies to the private sector. It was also urged by the private sector to use the e‐Platform not only for consultations, but also for feedback and discussions on specific issues, especially since this tool is a non‐legally binding mechanism, which mainly aims at facilitating the engagement between the private sector and ASEAN Sectoral Bodies, with their responses only serving for the purpose of consultations.

4) The public sector acknowledged that the time allocated for the private sector in ASEAN meetings, especially in consultations with the ASEAN leaders and ministerial or at SEOM level, which is usually only 15‐30 minutes, is not sufficient and that it is difficult for AMSs to comment on the recommendations by the private sector in such short given time. And thus, the public sector agreed that the e‐Platform would enhance the interaction between the private and public sector. It further suggested that, if the tool were to prove successful, it could be used for one‐on‐one individual consultations.

5) On the summary of the recommendation list by the private sector, the ASEAN Secretariat (ASEC) indicated that it would assist relevant ASEAN Sectoral Body Chairs to summarise the issues before officially responding to the JBC’s recommendations. For the complicated issues, ASEC may wish to consult the Sectoral Bodies before reverting to the JBCs. Furthermore, important issues may be prioritized for discussion, based on the priority list proposed by the JBCs. The issues would be categorized in specific topics, including trade facilitation, transport, customs, trade in goods, standards and conformity assessment, etc. As for the timeline for resolving JBCs’ recommendations and requests, ASEC suggested for ASEAN Sectoral Bodies to respond to such recommendations and requests as soon as possible, based on their available resources. After a period of initial ‘pilot’ implementation, subject to the assessment by both sides, the timeline would be institutionalized.

6) The public sector recognized the right timing of the establishment of the e‐Platform – prior to the convening of the Mid‐Term Review of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint 2025 and of the General Review of the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA). As such, this would allow the private sector to voice its concerns over the implementation of the ATIGA, as well as for the issues to be included in the Mid‐Term Review for a deeper integration.

7) With regard to the progressive operationalization of the ATR, the private sector acknowledged the usefulness and relevance of the ATR website to their day‐to‐day work and acknowledged that considerable progress has been achieved vis‐à‐vis the quantity and quality of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) and Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) NTMs that were on the ATR in May 2018. The private sector also welcomed the new ‘Enquiries’ webpage on the ATR, which is a tool for ATR users to seek transparency when the information is not yet available on the ATR.

8) With regard to the operational review of ASSIST, it was indicated that AMSs need to manage time properly as to comply with the ASSIST timeframes, and provide meaningful replies and solutions to complaints, while the private sector, specifically the JBCs as private sector representatives, were encouraged to submit complaints and further utilize ASSIST to take advantage of this initiative.

9) Lack of internal coordination among relevant ministries within the AMSs, and the low speed of the IT infrastructure, were again reiterated as one of the main challenges faced by AMSs during the validation the NTMs database for uploading onto the ATR. Increased transparency was urged by the private sector and it was agreed that there is a need for AMSs to strengthen their respective network of domestic institutional coordination (ideally though the National Trade Facilitation Committees) in the respective AMSs and among AMSs.

10) It was noted that the difference between the e‐Platform and ASSIST is that, while ASSIST focuses on specific issues, e.g., the rejection of Certificate of Origin (CO) Form D, clarification of the preferential tariff rates as requested by business associations, individual companies, or law firms, the e‐Platform is a virtual hub for the JBCs (at least for now) to raise the requests and/or recommendations on policy issues related to trade facilitation, e.g., the Low Value Shipment Programme (LVSP), with a view to further simplifying, harmonizing, and facilitating the trade in the region, which may involve the changing or improving the relevant agreements or arrangements, or even initiating new mechanisms across the region.

Proposed Actions

The following actions are being proposed by ARISE Plus to the ATF‐JCC and ASEAN‐BAC for their consideration and possible endorsement/implementation:

a) ASEAN Member States’ Governments should create greater awareness on the importance of private sector consultation, especially in the final drafting of trade‐related regulations, frameworks, guidelines, etc., as they have a crucial role in advancing trade facilitation and modernization in the region. Thus, consultations with the private sector should be enhanced, in order for them to become more efficient, effective and responsive.

b) The e‐Platform should be used as an efficient tool to enhance the exchange of views and expedite the process of consultations between the private sector representatives and ASEAN institutions, where agencies and private sector representatives could work together and even develop partnerships to seek greater transparency, as it is an informal platform to resolve ongoing issues and receive swift responses to particular issues.

c) The private sector should consider making greater use of ASSIST and taking advantage of this trade facilitation initiative to interact with ASEAN Member States when crossborder intra‐ASEAN trade problems need to be timely solved. Business and industry associations and business councils should be further encouraged and play a more proactive role in representing their members by filing complaints under ASSIST, when required, including anonymously if need be. The public sector should also try to provide meaningful solutions to complaints, so as to assure the private sector on the seriousness of the ASSIST mechanism and the full ownership by ASEAN Member States.

d) ASEAN Member States need to ensure that the identified challenges in implementing the NTMs Guidelines, especially the coordination among ministries and the strengthening of domestic institutional coordination in the respective AMSs and among Member States, are addressed soon in order to move forward. This includes the resolution of issues on the delay or absence of the advanced notification of draft measures, which are required under the NTMs Guidelines and Article 11 of the ATIGA.

e) Lastly, ways to increase awareness and greater outreach by the public and private sectors on the ATR and ASSIST were also urged. It was pointed out that Roundtable Discussions such as this one are very useful for both the public and private sectors, as there are many concerns from the private sector that have never been conveyed in formal ASEAN meetings, so this type of Roundtable Discussions provides good insights to the AMSs’ Governments and ASEAN Sectoral Bodies, despite them being informal in nature.

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