Advocacy Hears Concerns from Pacific Islander Small Businesses

Photo by Yvonne Lee
Photo by Yvonne Lee

By Region 9 Advocate Yvonne Lee

Recently, I was privileged to be invited by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of East Asian Pacific Affairs to speak at the Pacific Island Countries—U.S.A. Regional Workshop on Trade, Investment and Private Sector Development. Fifty trade and fisheries officials attended, as well as many private sector representatives from 14 Pacific Islands such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Palau and Tonga. The two-day program in Fiji was co-hosted by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, the Pacific Islands Development Program, and the U.S. Department of State.

The Office of Advocacy has long focused on trade regulatory concerns and been working with small and medium enterprise (SME) stakeholders who are interested in reaching the 95 percent of consumers who live outside of the U.S. While only 1 percent of U.S. small businesses currently export their goods, many U.S. SMEs rely on import products to run their businesses. My region, which includes Hawaii and Guam, makes for a strategic trade partner for U.S. businesses seeking to reach that fast-growing global market. I often hear from small business leaders their perspectives on how the federal government could help expand trade opportunities with Asian and Pacific countries.

With the possibility of a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, U.S. SMEs are intrigued by how the government could support U.S. businesses to reach the rapidly growing economic Asia Pacific region where two billion Asian consumers are expected to join the middle class within the next 15 years.

It was a unique experience to take part in this Pacific Islands-U.S. regional workshop. While I was able to share Advocacy’s mission in representing SME interests within the government, it was particularly insightful for me to learn from government and private sector leaders of the presented island countries their economic outlook and trade policies as the U.S. remains one of their top trade partners.

The average American consumer might be very familiar with a Fiji export—Fiji bottled water. In reality the Pacific Island countries export many more products that stock the shelves of U.S. businesses ranging from the neighborhood corner market to Whole Foods. Among the top island export products we find in U.S. stores are fish and tuna, produce and plants, oils and spices, health and beauty products, coffee and sugar.

There were also strong interests in the TPP’s continued development. While two of the forum’s members—Australia and New Zealand—are TPP negotiation partners, other island countries also see potential trade benefits as the islands are situated within the “donut hole” between the TPP’s North America and Asia Pacific partners.

I also met with several island exporters to the U.S. Like their U.S. counterparts, these business leaders are innovative entrepreneurs who are constantly looking for new business opportunities utilizing available sustainable natural resources. They also share the U.S. SMEs’ call for reducing duplicative and time consuming export/import inspection and certification processes from both ends of the trade. One person commented that an additional day in delay of product shipment equates to a 1 percent reduction in that island country’s trade. Further, over 60 percent of the islands’ perishable food exports are lost due to red-tape delays.

Two other business owners told me that although they successfully export their food products to the European Union (EU) and Asia, they are required by the U.S. to have different labeling on the same products to meet U.S. import standards, which adds costs to their business and therefore passed on to the American consumer.

Some of the island businesses’ regulatory concerns mirror those of their American partners, which include the need for internationally harmonized rules on import and export processing and certification, an international agreement on intellectual property standards and protection and cybersecurity. Pacific Islander community members also reminded me the need for a global recognition and appreciation of the shared purpose of export and imports as it benefits—economically and environmentally—both the Pacific and American peoples.

Advocacy is committed to support more U.S. SMEs to access the global marketplace through sound policy and rules since exports and imports to and from the U.S. help create U.S. jobs and grow the economy. This forum offered us a valuable global view in understanding the different aspects and dynamics of international trade which will help our continued efforts in advocating for U.S. small business growth both domestically and globally.