Page 7 of 9
Multilateralism as the way ahead for developing countries
Member countries of APEC agree that the ongoing increase in the number of FTAs14 adds impetus to their efforts to liberalize trade and investment throughout the region. However, the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) has rung a warning bell that Asia Pacific countries need to ensure that these agreements do not compromise the regional trading environment for governments and commercial entities. APEC's specific response has been to propose the development of a range of trade and capacity building moves for the region. We see some of these as laudable, such as developing a best practices guide and an FTA/RTA (Regional Trading Agreement) database, and advocating sharing of negotiating approaches and measures. However, these measures must include a review of possibly inconsistent provisions in multiple FTAs that could impact businesses. Some APEC initiatives worthy of mention that policymakers must ensure result in substantive available material are the APEC Intellectual Property Experts Group (IPEG) projects on Public Education and Awareness, the implementation of the APEC Model Guidelines on Anti-counterfeiting and Piracy and the proposal for sharing experiences in negotiation to promote 'High Quality' FTAs and RTAs.
As APEC works on ICT cooperation to increase the capacity of member countries to reap the benefits of the digital era,15 policymakers particularly from developing countries should closely monitor action on these proposals to ensure close collaboration on both the IP and the ICT front, to avert the danger of 'all sound and fury, signifying nothing'. We propose that a clear message be sent to business and governments in the region on the significance of the role and reach of IP intertwined with ICT, by incorporating IPR activities under the APEC IPEG in APEC's ICT agenda. In the same vein, the APEC IPR Service Centres set up or to be set up in each country and the IPR Education and Awareness programmes should be merged or closely affiliated with APEC Digital Opportunity Center activities.16
The ASEAN IPR Action Plan 2004–10 identifies the key objectives of increasing IP asset creation and commercialization in research, science and technology; harmonizing IPR registration, protection and enforcement in the region; promoting public awareness; and empowering national IP offices to collaborate on development of services to business. Progress appears far from swift, one example being that copyright was included for discussion as a specific form of IPR only as recently as 2003. Thus, a review of issues related to the digital environment and ICT and how cultural copyright may better be protected is at an early stage. For a start, policymakers could address a fundamental interplay between IP and ICT by closely reviewing the ICT infrastructure and facilities within each national IP office.17 Taking steps to enhance what is available within local IP registration regimes would boost ongoing promises to the public that the country will work towards harmonization of IP laws, regional IP registration and business development services to allow for genuine benefits for investors within the region.
Over the last few years, ASEAN has taken on the task of negotiating with other countries, including those in Asia Pacific such as India and China. Policymakers should seriously consider the value of throwing in their lot wholeheartedly with regional groups such as ASEAN or APEC, on the premise that the cumulative negotiation process in any trade agreement with giants such as the US and EU is likely to result in commitments that are of general value and impact, unlike the often overly rigorous IP provisions of bilateral FTAs.