Remarks by U.S. Ambassador Atul Keshap at the National Trade Portal and Single Window Best Practices Forum

Full Remarks (As Delivered)

Let me welcome all of the senior government officials, private sector representatives, ladies and gentlemen.  On behalf of the Government and the people of the United States, I want to welcome all of you to the National Trade Portal and Single Window Best Practices Forum.  I particularly want to thank Honorable Minister of Finance Ravi Karunanayake for joining us, recognizing his efforts and that of his Ministry in launching the Single Window platform in Sri Lanka in January.  I am also delighted that Mr. Rajendran, the Additional Director of Customs, will be sharing Sri Lanka’s accomplishments thus far in the break-out session tomorrow.

I am very honored and grateful to have representatives here from throughout South Asia and from our partners in the ASEAN region.  The Department of State and USAID partnered to convene this Forum, and your attendance from across the Indo-Pacific region is a testament to the importance that you place on increasing regional trade and tackling the barriers that prevent your countries from accessing each other’s markets.  I am pleased to see distinguished private sector and think tank representatives here from across South Asia.  It is vital that Government policy makers hear and can respond to the needs of the private sector as they develop policy and systems that are vital to doing business both domestically and globally.

I’ve heard you have had a robust discussion this morning with experts and practitioners who have first-hand experience on what it takes to launch and integrate trade portals and single window systems.  This Forum is intended to provide actionable knowledge on developing trade portals and single windows – meaning that you will have the chance to get into the weeds, into the nitty gritty of details and ask questions on implementation.  These are complicated endeavors, particularly on a micro level. But as you dig down, please keep in mind the broader goals of what these tools can do and what they can accomplish – increased trade, increased growth, increased incomes through regional trade integration.

Recognizing that trade integration is a pathway to sustainable and inclusive economic growth, I have long supported connectivity first in my role as the U.S Senior Official for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and then as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia.  Today, I am pleased to see the growth of U.S. government efforts to increase regional trade and investment between the U.S. and Sri Lanka, a country that will benefit directly from increasing economic links to its increasingly prosperous South Asian neighbors.

Friends, across the South Asian region, we have seen impressive poverty reduction and impressive growth region wide averaging seven percent.  This region is home to almost 1.7 billion people and the economies of South Asia collectively generate $2.6 trillion in annual GDP.  While that number sounds impressive, we know that it should and that it can be much, much higher.  We also know there is extraordinary potential that remains untapped in South Asia.  Among all of the regional economic groupings of the entire planet, South Asia’s regional and intra-regional trade remains too low – only about five percent of total trade is intra-regional – and intra-regional investment is less than one percent of overall FDI in South Asia.  While South Asia’s trade with Southeast Asia has increased dramatically over the last decade, we believe there is also much more potential for trade between these two great and ancient regions.

The United States believes that South Asia’s economic potential can be unlocked through enhanced regional economic connectivity.  To achieve this goal, we are implementing our vision of the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, or IPEC, an initiative that is building closer economic ties across the Bay of Bengal, Asia-Pacific, and the Indian Ocean regions.  As we all know from the history books, trade has thrived for centuries between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and between all of the communities of the greater and broader Indo-Pacific.  We’re working with governments in the region to create a regional energy market, improved trade and transport infrastructure, streamline customs and border procedures, and enhance people-to-people links.  We are fully committed as a government to a more stable, prosperous, democratic, and integrated South Asia because that in turn boosts the security and prosperity of the United States as well.  That is the main thrust, ladies and gentlemen, of President Obama’s Asia rebalance.

I often speak with businesses here in Sri Lanka to understand their perspectives.  Time and again, I hear their concern about a lack of up-to-date and reliable trade information, excessive and confusing paper work, and a lack of electronic systems which are essential in reducing the cost of trade and increasing transparency.  With fewer resources, small and medium enterprises are particularly affected by these challenges, which you know can be costly and complex.

That is why, in Sri Lanka and in countries throughout South and South East Asia, the United States Government is working to support small- and medium-sized companies to bring about economic growth and financial stability by creating new employment opportunities; promoting investment and developing skills; and also by connecting small and medium enterprises to regional and global markets, technological innovations, and knowledge.  After all, small- and medium-sized enterprises trying to break into the market and succeeding in breaking into the market provide new ideas, vitality, and helpful competition that can benefit the entire economic eco-system.

Friends, I believe that countries in this region can also give themselves a competitive edge by establishing clear and consistent policies in all areas of the economy.  Policy clarity and policy consistency helps to level the playing field, it fosters transparency, and it provides predictability.  All of these signal to the investor community that you are “open for business” and will attract those foreign and domestic investors looking for the best places to invest their money and share their knowledge.

Again friends, I want to emphasize connectivity. Connectivity leads to better integrated economies, improved socioeconomic outcomes, and remarkable innovations through sharing of ideas.  Connectivity is what this Forum ultimately addresses: connectivity between agencies within your governments; connectivity between your respective systems; connectivity between importers and exporters; connectivity between traders and government authorities; connectivity between SMEs and global markets; and right here, in this room, connectivity between all of you as experts who care about these issues

Friends, while you are at this Forum, you will be sharing information on best practices in building national trade portals and single windows, but you will also have the opportunity to build relationships.  You will have the opportunity to learn how your counterparts in other economies of the Indo-Pacific region are advancing their trade portals and single windows, and also dealing with the very real challenges to implementation.  I want to close my remarks by telling you again, how very happy we are to see you all of you in this room gathered together from across the Indo-Pacific, from South Asia and Southeast Asia.  I wish you best of luck with your deliberations and with your exchange of insight and expertise.  I thank you all again on behalf of the U.S. Department of State, USAID, and the United States Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka for coming here to Colombo.  Thank you and I wish you good continuation.