The blueprint for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) was signed on the 22nd of November. Leaders of the 10 Southeast Asian countries inked the document at an ASEAN Summit held in Malaysia.
It’s been more than 13 years since Southeast Asia’s leaders imagined a trade zone to match the US and Europe. The region’s future depends on its ability to keep pace with the mainland Asian giants of India and China.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak described the event as a “milestone” in the integration process. He voiced his belief that ASEAN held immeasurable potential for growth. Najid urged all nations to gave their best efforts to hasten the region’s integration.
The AEC has progressed with many of its goals even before now. Improvements such a removal of tax barriers and visa restrictions have helped a lot. Many experts expect a rise in employment and cultural integration in the near future.
It’s met endless challenges up until this point too. A John Hopkins University economics professor commented that AEC is “one of the most ambitious economic integration programs in the developing world”.
The ASEAN Economic Community Will Take Time
There are many uphill battles to be faced. Progress has been made by slashing tariffs and customs. But there are still lots of non-tariff barriers.
Most believe that it will be several years until the AEC will be fully functional. Diplomats of ASEAN countries even admit it will take awhile for the region to achieve its goal of becoming a single market.
The first obstacle is Southeast Asia’s sheer diversity. There are differences in each of the countries’ economies, politics, and languages.
Southeast Asia has countries of different economic tiers. Two of the world’s richest countries are at the top: Singapore and Brunei. These are followed by emerging economies such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. Frontier markets like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are at the bottom.
The political systems also range from democracy to an absolute Islamic Monarchy. Brunei, for example, has a plan to implement Sharia Law.
Tariffs and Restrictions in the ASEAN Economic Community
Second, the goal is to have a single market for production and labor. But there are still considerable barriers to that happening. There are many sectors which governments have not yet opened up to other countries. Such protected sectors include agriculture, steel, and auto-production.
The jobs that other ASEAN citizens qualify for in the other 9 countries will be limited to only 8 sectors. These including engineering, accountancy, and tourism. But jobs in these industries only make up 1.5% of the total workforce. In addition, host countries still hold the right to introduce laws that could cap the inflow of talent.
Thirdly, the countries themselves are still hesitant to change. Southeast Asian countries aren’t involved in intraregional trading as much as their European counterparts (24% compared to 60%).
The opposite is true, in fact. They’re often engaged in hostile activities against each other. Border disputes between Cambodia and Vietnam, along with the Indonesian forest fires, have both caused tensions in the region.
There are other factors such as poor infrastructure, corruption, and unequal cost of logistics.
However, even with the challenges faced today, ASEAN Council Chairman Mohamed Munir Abdul Majid said that AEC “is not the finished article. There is much work to be done.”
The declaration will still help change ASEAN countries’ attitude and mindset. A diplomat added this will help nations prioritize the progress of the region as a whole.
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