Apr. 29 – The leaders of the ASEAN countries converged in Brunei Darussalam last week for the 22nd summit of the regional grouping. On top of the agenda was further facilitation of the economic integration process that aims to unite the countries in the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2015. Furthermore, the summit also sought to foster deliberation on international issues of common concern, such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Agreement.
“ASEAN has an ambitious agenda which it is in the process of fulfilling,” said Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, applauding recent progress toward economic integration that he said would increase prosperity and reduce the likelihood of conflict in the region.
Nearly 80 percent of the AEC blueprint, a total of 259 different measures, has now been concluded in anticipation of its entry into force by December 2015. The AEC blueprint, which was adopted in 2007, is meant to facilitate the creation of a single market and production base, partly through the near elimination of inter-region import duties.
Analysts have pointed out, however, that some of the most difficult areas are yet to be addressed.
Prime Minister Lee said services liberalization and trade facilitation remain challenges, and he also noted the need for additional legislative and physical infrastructure inter-connecting the region. He remarked that increased integration is important for further rapid development.
“Unless ASEAN develops an effective economic community, a lot of the emphasis and focus of investors of the developed countries and the trading partners will be on China and Northeast Asia, South Korea and other parts of the world, and we will lose out,” he said.
Regional observers maintain that the AEC is a move in the right direction for ASEAN.
“The regional environment has changed. ASEAN should rightfully treat all the major economic powers equal handedly, welcome investments, regulate our markets, make it more competitive, by hosting the major investors whether it is the American, the Chinese, the Japanese; it can’t be a bad thing, it is only good for us… More than 10-15 years (after the 1997 financial crisis), ASEAN is ready and poised for higher growth. We must put our act together,” said Associate Professor Tan Khee Giap, Co-director of the Asia Competitiveness Institute.