Malaysia's big chance to help shape ASEAN's new era

Malaysia's big chance to help shape ASEAN's new era

By the end of 2015, the ASEAN Economic Community is to be born -- and as the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Malaysia will be its presiding midwife. Using an elaborate scorecard, each of ASEAN's 10 members has been asked to report progress on steps taken to promote economic integration and make the community a reality.

The latest count shows that, on average, 78% of required actions have been completed. By the end of the year, reported progress will likely be close enough for declarations of "victory," even if the 100% target is not reached. But such declarations would be premature.

The reality is that while ASEAN has made progress toward economic integration, there remains much heavy lifting to do. As ASEAN chair for 2015, Malaysia should make a candid assessment of the unfinished trade and investment agenda and find a way forward to the goal of genuine integration.

Make no mistake, ASEAN countries have made progress in dismantling at-the-border trade restrictions. At about 130%, the region's ratio of trade to gross domestic product is the highest among developing regions. Each of the 10 countries has liberalized its trade unilaterally and acceded to the World Trade Organization. As a result, trade has expanded rapidly within the region and between the region and the world, providing the foundation for the impressive economic growth performance of the last three decades.

Collectively, ASEAN's agreements on trade in goods, trade in services, and investor protection have helped to consolidate these advances. Unfortunately, however, protectionist forces within countries have found ways of circumventing these agreements, largely through behind-the-border measures -- licenses, regulations, taxes, and health and safety regulations.

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