Pacific countries cannot be left isolated from regional economic integration initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region.This was the central message delivered by the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Tuiloma Neroni Slade, at the 68th Session of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) currently underway in Bangkok.
Asia-Pacific countries began deliberations this week at an annual United Nations forum to review policy options for deepening integration within the region.
Mr Slade was addressing a Ministerial Roundtable on the Theme Study "Growing Together: Economic Integration for an Inclusive and Sustainable Asia-Pacific Century".
Linking the Pacific
"Integration for the Pacific islands with Asia means being plugged to more advanced economies and trading systems," said Mr Slade.
The Theme Study identifies that the 'most important factor for the success of regional economic integration is the presence of large and growing markets'.
"Whilst the Pacific island economies do not have large markets, the proximity to Asia does provide real prospect and opportunity for growth in intra-regional trade between Asia and the Pacific, making the Asia-Pacific regional economic integration highly desirable."
Pacific Islands Forum Leaders have identified particular sectors that have significant growth potential for the Pacific islands, which include fisheries, agriculture, minerals and tourism.
"These would be areas which might be the focus of Asia-Pacific integration efforts with, hopefully, the specific objective of increased investment flows to the Pacific," said Mr Slade.
"Additionally, focusing on trade in services and temporary labour mobility to support growth, the services sector economies should be an integral part of the integration initiative."
Smallness and isolation
"Pacific Islands Forum member countries face a range of real and significant challenges in their determination to increase the pace of engagement in regional economic integration initiatives," explained Mr Slade.
Compared to Asia, Mr Slade noted that many Pacific islands are quite small.
"The smallness of economies does not allow for normal benefits of the economies of scale factor, and consequently in the Pacific, the focus is generally on export of high-value niche market products."
Mr Slade added that the ocean setting and isolation of Pacific countries remains the biggest challenge for regional trade in goods.
"It would probably not be an exaggeration to say that because of isolation, Pacific island countries are largely not on Asia's radar," asserted Mr Slade.
"Isolation has a constant companion in the problem of transport for goods, services and people, whether by air or by sea.
"Many Pacific islands still lack any type of regularity in international passenger and cargo connections. However, the converse would be that maritime and air transport industry, whilst being a challenge, does provide an opportunity in the Pacific in terms of investments and provision of commercial services from Asian counterparts."
Mr Slade stressed that it does make sense for Pacific economies to be connected to a larger vibrant market such as Asia, which is built on efficiency, technology usage and access to bigger international markets.
Opportunities for engagement
"On our side, we need to ensure that Pacific countries have the capacity to negotiate and engage meaningfully in any Asia-Pacific integration framework," said Mr Slade.
"On the other side, there is need to be mindful of the Pacific context and Asia's willingness to participate in Pacific opportunities."
Mr Slade highlighted that there is already active engagement in many fishing and economic ventures around Pacific Ocean resources.
"I should also think that with all its exotic charms, and alongside Asia's antiquity and vitality, the Pacific could be a world tourism Mecca extraordinaire and an excellent platform for investors from Asia to contribute to the Asia-Pacific economic integration.
"Efforts from the United Nations mechanisms to assist the Forum island countries progress their engagement in the regional economic integration initiatives are crucial, and the Forum Secretariat values the ongoing partnership with the UNESCAP in this area."