Southeast Asian Nations Launch Huge Trade Bloc

Manila Bulletin, December 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Southeast Asian Nations Launch Huge Trade Bloc


Ten Southeast Asian nations start an ambitious, US-backed experiment on Thursday: Integrating their economies in a bid to bring more global sway and prosperity to the region's 622 million citizens.

Their common market - more than a decade in progress - aims to forge a prominent regional bloc to rival China and Japan out of a hodgepodge of economies ranging from rich-and-open Singapore to emerging Myanmar.

Over time, the countries, all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, plan to boost economic ties by further lowering tariffs and allowing a freer flow of labor, services and capital across a region stretching 3,900 miles between the Pacific and Indian oceans.

The bloc - which also includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam - is a fast-expanding home to a rising middle class, but also to widespread poverty and income inequality. The group's leaders hope their effort, which formally begins Thursday but will still take years to complete, will bring economic well-being to more people in a region where they expect a nearly $2.6-trillion combined economy to almost double by 2030.

"It's a big milestone for us," said Le Luong Minh, secretary-general of the bloc, called the ASEAN Economic Community. Less than a half century ago some Southeast Asian countries were still at war, he pointed out. "We've made a lot of progress."

Economic integration within the region is also at the center of the Obama administration's rebalance of foreign policy toward Asia, in part to address China's increased military and economic assertiveness in the region. The US has been aiding the effort, for example, by helping ASEAN countries to integrate their customs and trading procedures.

In the near term, the US isn't likely to clinch major deals with the Asean community. Instead, American officials hope to launch the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a 12-nation trade accord that includes Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, and expand the bloc to other countries that have expressed interest, including Indonesia and the Philippines. The pact was completed in October but faces a difficult vote in Congress as early as next year.

"The way the United States envisions this is you start with the TPP - you build the 'gold standard' for trade - and you slowly build that in Asia to allow better integration," said Carl Baker, Hawaii-based director of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "By working with them as they build the economy community, the United States sees that as an alternative to balance the Chinese economic influence."

Both the Chinese and Japanese governments also have expressed support for the Asean bloc's integration efforts, as both jockey for power and influence among their neighbors.

The group's goals mirror the European Union's 1950s-era forerunner, another geopolitical bloc whose members suffered decades of strife before uniting. As in Europe, fuller integration could take decades.

The Southeast Asian group doesn't plan to have a common currency, such as the euro. It still limits cross-border travel, unlike the EU's passport-free Schengen area. …

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