ACCSQ Working Group on MRAs (WG1): Its Role and Activities towards MRAs in ASEAN


Introduction

Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRAs) are agreements between two or more parties to mutually recognize or accept some or all aspects of one another’s conformity assessment result. Through MRAs, products that are tested and certified before export can enter the importing country directly without having to undergo similar conformity assessment procedures in the importing country.

With the increasing importance of standardization and conformity assessment in international trade, MRAs have emerged as a key strategy to facilitate trade by reducing the need for multiple testing and certification that incur unnecessary costs to exports and delay delivery to market.

ACCSQ WG on MRAs

ASEAN recognized at an early stage the need for MRAs to facilitate the realization of ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA). Back in 1997, the ASEAN Economic Ministers agreed on an umbrella agreement to provide the basis for the development of the specific MRAs among ASEAN member countries.

To follow up on the decision, the ASEAN Consultative Committee for Standards and Quality (ACCSQ) formed a Task Force on Developing a Roadmap towards MRAs.

Based on the recommendation of the Task Force, the Eleventh ACCSQ Meeting held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 11-12 March 1998 agreed to establish the Working Group on MRAs (MRA WG) with a specific role to assist ACCSQ in the development of MRAs.

Other Working Groups established at that time were Working Group on Regulations and Accreditation, Working Group on Standards and Conformity Assessment, and Working Group on Information. These Working Groups were requested to work closely with WG on MRA in its endeavor towards MRAs in the region.

At the First MRA WG Meeting held in April 1998 it was agreed that the scope of the MRA Working Group covers the following:

a.     drafting the ASEAN Framework Agreement on MRAs;

b.       facilitating the establishment of sector-specific MRAs; and

c.        advising on possible MRAs with other region(s) and countries or economies.

From its establishment until now, the MRA WG has progressed to complete each of the assigned activities.

ASEAN Framework Agreement on MRAs

The MRA WG started drafting the ASEAN Framework Agreement on MRAs in its First Meeting in April 1998. The draft was finalized in November 1998 and subsequently endorsed by the ACCSQ. The ASEAN Framework Agreement on MRAs then was signed by the ASEAN Economic Ministers on 16 December 1998 during the Sixth ASEAN Summit. This Framework Agreement would serve as a basis for the negotiations of MRAs for specific sectors.

Following the signing of the Framework Agreement, the MRA WG also finalized the Interpretative Notes to the Framework Agreement which was endorsed by the ASEAN Economic Ministers in October 2000.

The MRA WG emphasized the needs to familiarize the ASEAN Framework Agreement on MRAs to industry, regulators and other parties involved in the preparation and implementation of MRAs.  For this purpose, a series of MRAs seminars was conducted in various ASEAN Member Countries:

-          MRAs Seminar, Hanoi, Vietnam, 23 June 98

-     MRAs Seminar, Jakarta, Indonesia, 3-4 March 99

-          MRAs Seminar, Hanoi, Viet Nam, 28 June 99

-     MRAs Seminar, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, 2 July 99

-     MRAs Seminar, Manila, Philippines, 16 July 99

Facilitating the establishment of sector-specific MRAs   

With the completion of the Framework Agreement, the MRA WG proceeded with the identification of sectors for development of MRAs. Noting that MRAs is sector specific and require regulators’ involvement, the role of the MRA WG would be to recommend sectors for the development of MRAs. For each sector, a separate body or  product working group (PWG) would be set up to look into details whether MRAs is feasible, and if so, to proceed with the drafting of the agreement on  sectoral MRAs.

The MRA WG looked into the criteria set forth in the Framework Agreement to identify sectors for possible MRAs. The criteria are:

a.                   with special focus on but not limited to the list of  the 20 priority product  groups identified for   harmonization of standards;

b.                   the volume of intra-ASEAN trade affected;

c.                    the existence and extent of technical barriers to trade (TBT);

d.                   the readiness of technical infrastructure in the majority of Member States;

e.                   the interest of the majority of Member States.

A preliminary study on trade value and the extent of TBT was conducted by the WG in May 1997. The study identified three sectors for possible MRAs, i.e. electrical and machinery, cosmetics products, and pharmaceuticals products.

Subsequently, a regional survey was done to look into more details of the selected sectors. The survey indicated Prepared Foodstuff as an additional area for possible MRAs.

Based on the findings from those studies, the MRA WG recommended that the Cosmetic and Pharmaceutical Product Working Groups (PWGs) look into the possibility of developing MRAs in their respective sectors. At present, the Cosmetic PWG had finalized the agreements on the ASEAN Harmonized Cosmetic Regulatory Scheme.

For the electrical and electronic sectors, the ACCSQ set up the Electrotechnical Product Working Group in 1999. This PWG was the first to conclude the sectoral MRAs agreement.

The ASEAN Sectoral MRAs for Electrical and Electronic Equipment was signed by the AEM on 5 April 2002 and, at present, the EPWG is in the process of implementing the ASEAN EE MRAs.

A Seminar on MRAs for Prepared Foodstuff was held in November 2002 in Manila, Philippines, to get the views of regulators and industry on the feasibility of MRAs for this sector.

The Seminar recorded interest from industry for MRAs in Prepared Foodstuff. Based on this outcomes, the ACCSQ approved the recommendation of the MRA WG to form a PWG for Prepared Foodstuff.

While each of the Product Working Groups progressing with their discussion on MRAs, the MRA WG took a proactive role for monitoring the development in the sectoral MRAs. The MRA WG came up with a series of recommendation to the ACCSQ in order to facilitate the work of the respective PWGs, which included restructuring of the ACCSQ Working Groups for better coordination.

Also in appreciating the issues faced in the development of sectoral MRAs and reiterating the importance of MRAs to ensure greater market access to industry, the MRA WG developed the ACCSQ Process Map for Sectoral MRAs to serve as guidelines for the ACCSQ PWGs  in the establishment and implementation of MRAs (please see Diagram 1).

Possible MRAs with other blocs/countries

Along with its effort towards the realization of AFTA, ASEAN continues to strengthen its external linkage. Initiatives were made to deepen the economic relations with the Dialogue Partners through the commitment for

Free Trade Areas (FTAs) or Closer Economic Partnership (CEP), which, among others are as follows:

§          The AEM and the Ministers from CER (Australia and New Zealand) signed the Joint Ministerial Declaration on AFTA-CER CEP on 14 September 2002 and agreed to set a target of doubling trade and investment by 2010 to ensure that the CEP was ambitious and results oriented.

§          The ASEAN and China Leaders signed the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation between ASEAN and China during their Summit on 4 November 2002. According to this agreement, ASEAN and China agreed to negotiate expeditiously in order to establish an ASEAN-China FTA within 10 years and to strengthen and enhance economic co-operation.

§          The Joint Declaration of the Leaders of ASEAN and Japan on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership was signed during the ASEAN-Japan Summit on 5 November 2002. In the declaration, the Leaders agreed to develop a framework that would provide a basis for concrete plans and elements toward realizing an ASEAN-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The implementation measures, including elements of a possible Free Trade Area (FTA), are expected to be completed as soon as possible and within ten years.

All of the above agreements on FTAs/CEP indicated non-tariff barriers and cooperation in standards and conformity assessment as issues to be addressed within its framework.

The MRA WG took initiatives to anticipate these new developments by exploring the possibility of deepening relations with the dialogue partners through establishment of MRAs.  A concept paper on possible MRAs with CER had been finalized and submitted for the considerations of the ACCSQ and its CER counterparts.

Two task forces are being developed, one to look into possible MRAs with China and the other to look into possible MRAs with Japan. They are expected to come up with concept papers as a basis for the MRA WG’s discussion in determining the future cooperation with China and Japan.

Conclusion

The MRA WGs enters a new phase of development and implementation of the sectoral MRAs after concluding the ASEAN Framework  Agreement on MRAs. At this point of time, the MRA WG focuses its activities to monitor and assist the Product Working Groups in their efforts towards MRAs. The first Sectoral MRAs to be implemented is the ASEAN Sectoral MRAs for the Electrical and Electronic Equipment.

The MRA WG also observes the development in the ASEAN external economic relations. In anticipating the deepening of relations with CER, Japan and China, the MRA WG had initiated studies to explore the feasibility of MRAs with those countries/blocs.