The imagined economic community of ASEAN?

The imagined economic community of ASEAN?
Flags of the states which are also Asean members.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), one of the three pillars of the so-called ASEAN Community, was formally implemented at the start of this year.

Simply put, the primary goals of the AEC are to create an integrated and highly cohesive ASEAN economy for the common welfare and prosperity of members through the allowance of a free-flow of goods, services, capital, investment and skilled labour.

There have been many analyses of the readiness of ASEAN and the likely impact of the AEC on the region and its member states, as well as on the international economy.

However, the analysis of the possible impact of the AEC in regard to its basic idea of being a "community" has been inadequate.

At first glance, the AEC could be considered to be "imagined".

As Benedict Anderson argued in 1983, in the "imagined community" members of the community will never know most of their fellow members, meet them or directly interact with them, but in the minds of each member lives the image of their communion.

The term "community" implies a shared destiny and identity among members. In the context of the AEC, the ASEAN states and their people, as the members of the ASEAN Community, certainly have a common understanding of and interest in their collective welfare.

Under the framework of the AEC, the citizens of ASEAN can interact and be highly interconnected though they will never know each other and never meet in the flesh.

Unlike security and social-cultural aspects, building an economic community is commonly assumed to be the easiest and least controversial of the three pillars of the ASEAN Community.

However, the implementation of the AEC could be a big barrier for ASEAN's instilling of a sense of "community" among its members.

In the AEC, members of the community are allowed to create co-operation and competition at the same time. Economic co-operation will likely facilitate the ASEAN states and their people to gain more shared benefits.

Yet, the AEC also permits a high level of trans-boundary economic competition in goods, services and investment.

Indeed, in an ideal world, the competition would bring common welfare for all parties rather than having a negative impact on some.

Nevertheless, the competition means something close to an economic race among members.

In this situation, all parties of the community are likely to be selfish, meaning they prioritize their own national and personal interest over the others.

In addition, states with stronger economies that are better prepared deal with the liberalization will have greater opportunity to benefit from the AEC.

In contrast, the weaker economic states will suffer multi-sector losses such as increases in unemployment, trade-balance deficits and even increased poverty rates.

At this point, economic liberalization is commonly regarded by some as a mechanism that provides more benefits than losses.

The perceived threats are rarely used to argue against economic liberalization.

The theory that economic co-operation promises welfare and prosperity is more dominant than the awareness that economic competition not only produces winners, but also losers.

In regard to the ASEAN Community, the negative impact of the AEC is likely to complicate the primary goal of implementing the tagline of "one vision, one identity and one community".

The negative impact of this economic liberalization could erode the "we" feeling of the community members.

The ASEAN states or people that suffer more disadvantage as a result of the AEC will tend to feel disappointed in their fellow ASEAN members.

Therefore, creating of framework for economic co-operation and competition neither guarantees the success of the region's effort to create a "community", nor necessarily even supports the idea.

However, this does not mean that the AEC will only cause social-economic damage.

To conclude, it is too early to know whether or not the AEC can effectively lead to an integrated and cohesive ASEAN Community.

Instead, the implementation of the AEC should be watched in full awareness of the possibility of a negative impact on the economies of particular members, be they states or smaller entities, and of damage to the vision of an ASEAN Community.

The writer is a member of the academic staff in the Department of International Relations at the University of Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta and a PhD student at the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds.

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