Nov 29, 2020 Last Updated 3:47 AM, Nov 26, 2020

PICTA: Picture of indifference

Foreign trade ministers say PICTA needs to be modernised Foreign trade ministers say PICTA needs to be modernised Fiji Government
Published in May
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PICTA stands for Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement. It is a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiated amongst the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) to free up trade amongst themselves, under the provisions of ‘GATT 1947’, which morphed into ‘GATT 1994’ that is incorporated into the WTO Agreement. PICTA was signed in 2001 and came into force in 2003. But implementation was delayed until 2007. As of today, only seven PICs are trading under this agreement.

The situation depicted above has not changed since 2010, 10 years ago. In a workshop, sponsored by the Pacific Islands Private Sector Organization (PIPSO), the European Union (EU) and the Pacific Regional Integration Programme (PACREIP) in 2010, its outcomes document had this to say: “They are concerned therefore that only 7 of the 14 PICs are currently implementing PICTA. They believe that this is retarding regional economic integration and delaying the realisation of the collective economic and social benefits and improvements to the living standards of all the peoples of the Pacific region. They further believe that the delay in the benefits of regional economic integration under PICTA will constrain our ability and capacity to negotiate a fully meaningful PACER Plus with Australia and New Zealand.”

Later, on 5-8 November 2012, in a ‘What Can We Learn Symposium’, sponsored by six organisations including regional, United Nations and aid agencies, Dr Roman Grynberg, former Director of Economic Governance at the Forum Secretariat lamented the fact that PICTA “has thus far been of the most limited success.” He put the reasons down to: “there was no appetite amongst island officials and policy makers for any form of liberalisation that involved a direct adjustment cost. Whereas island officials have always been happy to write, sign and even ratify trade agreements, implementing them and accepting the real economic costs were quite another matter.”

After 19 years since signing, and 17 years since the agreement came into force, it can only be said that the current status of this trade agreement, the first for PICs, is most unfortunate indeed. The regional economic integration that PICTA was supposed to bring about is still very much at its infancy.

The founders of Pacific regionalism, way back in 1971, had conceived such a FTA would free up Intra-PIC trade and would further develop into an economic union, permitting initially the free movement of capital, labour, goods and services. By specifically targeting an economic union, the regional leaders then would have envisaged a Pacific-wide common market that went beyond trade, also envisaging prospects of coordination of various social, fiscal and monetary policies amongst participating nations.

However, after 49 years of regionalism, it can be said that the early regional leaders’ dream remains a pipedream. Recent decisions by those who could transform this situation have not helped. The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Trade Ministers’ meeting last February failed to give PICTA the thrust it needs to get it urgently going forward and to expediently make a difference to regional economic integration.

The PIF Trade Ministers’ outcomes were a damp squib. For PICTA, the ministers “also recognised the importance of …PICTA and its potential to facilitate intra-regional trade.” This is essentially saying the obvious. The FTA’s importance and potential were the qualities that drove the early regional leaders to negotiate the agreement in the first place. What is to be gained from such reiteration? This speaks volumes of the foresight of our early leaders but not much about our current leaders.

Furthermore, the use of ‘also’ in this context implies that such a statement was an afterthought. This presents an interesting angle. PICTA is a matter for PICs trade ministers only. But in this case, trade ministers from Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) were present during the discussions. Was the language of the outcomes especially aimed at sugar-coating due to the presence of the two elephants in the room?  

It did not stop there. The next part of the decision was extraordinarily naïve. Ministers indicated the direction further discussions could take but provided only if such and such were done. They failed to give concrete direction and action-oriented instructions as how those issues that were thwarting the ratification and implementation of the FTA could be expedited.

Admittedly, the issues involved are not simple. These are to do with what is now termed as the ‘modernisation work on PICTA’, including the extensive PICTA review and the Rules of Origin review. I can imagine that someone had coined ‘modernisation’ since the issues have been there on the table for donkeys’ years and have somewhat lost their vitality.

For the PICs trade officials and PIF Secretariat (PIFS) staff after the ministers’ meeting, it may be just business as usual. They have not heard any plea for urgency and certainly no specificity of actions to be taken both at the national and regional levels. There was no mention of additional resources. There was no mention of the legal, technical, political and consultative measures that need to be mobilised to progress matters. There was no mention of the measures directed at mobilising the private sector representatives at the national level and at the regional level through PIPSO. There was no mention of the prospects of technical assistance (TA) that PIFS staff should extend to members especially to the Smaller Island States (SIS).

It is difficult to be optimistic about PICTA given its dismal history. But one can be proven wrong. The trade officials may have reached a tipping point and could now be driven to do all they can despite the vagueness and the absence of commitment in the ministerial directives. This is a possibility given the commendation they have received recently from Professor Jane Kelsey of Auckland University.

The good professor was a resource person for the ministerial meeting last February. Whilst she was impressed with the quality of some of our trade officials, she was not however with the Forum Secretariat. Her assessment of the latter was that whilst there has been an improvement, the Secretariat is still inadequate in servicing the needs of the PICs. The Secretariat lacks the ‘fundamentals’ and the ‘nuances’ to identify the real needs of the PICs and the ‘independence’ to address them. If there was a vindication for the provisions of TA by PIFS for its deserving members, this was it.  

The case of PICTA and its stunted history raises two big issues for Pacific regionalism. The first is that if PICs are not getting the benefits from this trade agreement as intended, then questions have to be asked about the suitability of the model around which the agreement is built. Professor Kelsey has already told us that the model is broken. So, what can be put in its place?

There is also the question of the suitability of a regional grouping of only small states. Can such create the net benefits needed? Would PACER Plus with ANZ be a better configuration for a regional trade agreement?

Big questions need critical thinking on the part of our regional planners. These are all food for thought for the regional strategists who are developing the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent and for the next PIF Leaders’ meeting scheduled for August later this year in Port Vila.

Last modified on Thursday, 11 June 2020 13:25

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