The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), a regional initiative designed to transform Southeast Asia into a more unified and competitive market zone, is scheduled to go into full effect in December 2015, but attitudes among journalists and policy analysts about the plausibility of meeting the current schedule remain mixed. While some commentators show signs of optimism, others believe that the AEC, and in some cases ASEAN itself, is doomed to failure. This report will look at the history and current state of the AEC in order to draw insights on the opportunities and obstacles to further economic integration, a process that is already well underway but will face many challenges in the coming years.
ASEAN Economic Integration: History and Progress to Date
In the long-term history of ASEAN, the current drive towards region-wide economic integration is a relatively recent phenomenon. When ASEAN was initiated in 1967, it was structured primarily as a regional peacekeeping and security bloc by its founding members (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines), who sought to counter the growing threats of communism and intervention from outside powers that had turned much of Indochina into a war zone at that time. By the time Brunei joined in 1984, economic development was a discrete part of the agenda as well, but it wasn’t until the 1990s, and especially the late 1990s when the so-called CMLV countries (Cambodia, Myanmar, Lao PDR and Vietnam) were admitted to the organization, that efforts to promote genuine economic integration began in earnest.
The first major step towards economic integration came with the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) in 1992, which reduced tariffs and non-tariff barriers to intra-ASEAN trade. Under the AFTA, intra-ASEAN tariffs were capped at 5% (with exceptions for a few classes of “sensitive” goods) for all of the six nations that comprised ASEAN (ASEAN-6) at the time. When the CMLV countries later joined ASEAN, they also signed on to the AFTA, although they were given a more lenient schedule for reducing tariffs because their relative underdevelopment rendered many of their industries more vulnerable to shocks from rapid trade liberalization. From the get-go, the CMLV countries presented challenges to the integration process, but by the mid-2000s, headway was made nonetheless. According to a recent BCG report, average regional tariffs fell from 4 to 2 percent between 2002 and 2008, boosting intraregional trade from $155 billion to $415 billion, while data from the ASEANstats database shows that intra-ASEAN FDI increased in kind over that time period, expanding from $3.8 billion to $9.4 billion. The global economic meltdown of 2008 caused reversals in expansion of economic activity, but by 2010 intra-ASEAN FDI growth resumed, hitting $12.2 billion in that year.
Inspired perhaps by the progress that was made under the AFTA, the ASEAN member states agreed in 2007 to take economic integration to the next level by forming an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which they committed to realizing by 2015. According to the AEC Scorecard, a report produced by the ASEAN that lays out the goals of the AEC, the AEC has four “pillars”:
- Creation of a single production and market zone in which all Southeast Asian states retain national sovereignty but eliminate virtually all tariffs and open their borders to a much freer flow of trade, capital, investment and labor.
- Enhancing the economic competitiveness of the region through various measures designed to promote ease of doing business, including infrastructure development projects, better consumer rights and IP laws, and policies designed to foster competition.
- Promoting equal economic development through policies that are designed to bridge the development gap between the countries richest and poorest members.
- Enhancing integration into the world economy by concluding free trade agreements with external powers.
One of these “other problems” is ASEAN’s consensus style of governance, which requires the association’s member states to achieve unanimous assent on any policy before it is launched as a regional initiative. This enables any member state, no matter how small or removed from the policy being discussed, to exercise effective veto power on all ASEAN initiatives. As an example of how the need for consensus has hampered economic integration, Kurlantzick’s paper cites disagreements on infrastructure projects, such as regional highways and railways, that have prevented the AEC from fully realizing its stated goal of creating a more connected regional landscape. He also points to ASEAN’s more dangerous failure to forge a unified position on the South China Sea disputes as evidence that the organization is not together enough to engage in joint resource development projects or even defend its basic territorial interests in this contested region.
Kurlantzick’s concerns about the future of the AEC are echoed by Murray Hunter, another analyst of the region who wrote an article about ASEAN integration for the New Mandala last month. The article contains some factual inaccuracies and could have used some editorial polish, but it nonetheless raises several points worthy of consideration. One of his principal points is that many of ASEAN’s member states are currently “facing watershed issues that may well set out how their respective societies will look for many generations,” resulting in most political leaders maintaining an inward rather than a regional focus. To some degree, Kurlantzick’s discussion of the issue supports this point, but Hunter makes the effort to spell out, on country-by-country basis, the internal political challenges that are diverting attention from regional integration initiatives.
Hunter also argues that the AEC lacks broad support within the Southeast Asian business community. He posits that many Southeast Asian conglomerates are “lukewarm” to the concept of regional integration because they are “well connected in their own countries and haven’t historically done well business wise [sic] in countries within the region where their connections are weak,” indicating that they “may actually enjoy the current protection that is afforded them from outside competition.” Hunter further posits that the SMEs that account for the bulk of businesses in the region have little or no stake in economic integration at all, except in the case of those that relate to tourism. His article concludes with a list of miscellaneous additional barriers to economic integration, some of which are covered by Kurlantzick and some of which appear to be unique to Hunter’s analysis.
The Prevailing Mood on the AEC Today
For many of the reasons enunciated by the various commentators discussed above, discouragement about the present state of the AEC has mounted in recent months, especially since the schedule was pushed back nearly a year from January 1 to December 31, 2015. While some of the global consultancies that publish on the region have maintained a generally optimistic tone on the prospects for further integration, and some media accounts present the AEC as a foregone conclusion, others like Kurlantzick and Hunter are skeptical. With the AEC still three years away, however, the outcome of regional economic integration efforts remain hard to predict, calling for close analysis of the integration process as it unfolds.