Forum to discuss ASEAN economic integration

Forum to discuss ASEAN economic integration

Big buzz phrases like "Asia's next economic miracle" and "a dream of 600 million fulfilled" will not be in short supply when more than 600 top thinkers descend on Manila this week to discuss the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) at the 23rd World Economic Forum on East Asia.

The AEC, a long cherished dream of the 10 ASEAN countries that is expected to launch next year, will be a common market with a combined gross domestic product of about US$2 trillion (S$2.5 trillion).

By Jan 1 next year, tariff and non-tariff barriers across South-east Asia will be removed, and restrictions on services, investments and labour mobility eased.

"This brings unprecedented opportunities for partnership, trade and foreign direct investment," said the World Economic Forum's (WEF) managing director Philipp Rosler.

On the ground, however, economists and bureaucrats are carefully managing expectations, saying this "dream" is likely to arrive as a "series of little bangs" rather than a seismic shift.

Neither would the AEC upend the way business is conducted.

"Integration is a process. It is not going to be a big bang," said Philippine Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima. Europe, he pointed out, is still integrating more than three decades since the European Union was formed.

For Philippine Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo, the "big bang" already happened four years ago, when nearly all tariff lines in South-east Asia were rolled back to zero or near-zero.

The big shift will be in non-tariff barriers that could see countries such as the Philippines easing limits on ownership of key industries and opening up more sectors to foreign competition, he said.

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