Policy Options Paper

Enhancing Coherence and Inclusiveness in the Global Trading System in the Era of Regionalism

January 2016

Over the past two decades, regional trade agreements (RTAs) have proliferated alongside the WTO system, involving a wide variety of agreements. In the absence of significant progress on the multilateral front, they have served as focal points of inter-state cooperation, as well as incubators and testing grounds for new trade rules. Over time, these agreements have evolved and many now contain disciplines that are wider in scope, deeper in nature, and significantly more sophisticated than the multilateral trading system. There is also a new trend towards megaregional initiatives of potentially systemic impact, as well as plurilateral negotiations in important functional areas such as services. These developments have opened opportunities but also given rise to challenges, particularly regarding issues of coherence and inclusiveness, in this emerging global trade and investment architecture. The present paper examines the implications of this new era of regionalism and offers recommendations on how the system of RTAs can best be leveraged to advance trade and development. Seven policy options are grouped into three work areas: furthering the potential benefits of RTA integration with third parties; using plurilateral approaches as a means to multilateralise RTAs; and, pooling resources to advance the effective implementation of RTAs and new idea-generation. The analytical and practical perspective on which the options are framed is that WTO members need a new 21st century approach to RTAs; one that harnesses the opportunities created by RTAs to deepen and broaden global economic integration, and one that helps ensure that all WTO members, including the many developing countries that are outsiders to ongoing mega-regional and plurilateral initiatives, can benefit from the global trade and investment system. The paper concludes by identifying factors that will influence future patterns of regional economic integration.

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