Florence Chong's picture

DESPITE their best intentions, leaders of the 10 Southeast Asian countries making up ASEAN seem unlikely to be able to bring about that much-anticipated single trading market by 2015. Realpolitik – a mix of domestic pressures and immense diversity of economic development within the region – seems likely to win the day . . .

JUDGING from the language used at the 22nd ASEAN Leaders Summit in Brunei last week, the ambitious deadline for implementation -- brought forward from 2020 to 2015 -- is proving simply too ambitious.

Observers noted how various leaders skirted around the subject when reporters attempted to pin them down on whether ASEAN is really on track for 2015 implementation.

Academics and researchers who follow ASEAN closely have long observed a shifting of the goalposts because of domestic political pressures.

It should not be overlooked that several ASEAN leaders face national elections in the next two years. Malaysia will elect a new leader on May 5 -- in fact, Malaysia’s leader, Najib Razak, did not attend.

Indonesians will decide next year who is to run their vast archipaelago. Myanmar will hold a general election in 2015, with the Philippines due to go to the polls in 2016.

Governments everywhere avoid hard decisions that might cause economic pain to their constituents in the lead-up to elections.

At the concluding press conference last week, Brunei’s Prime Minister, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (Brunei is currently the Chair of ASEAN), said that essentially ASEAN's community-building is an ongoing process – and that it will continue even after "our 2015 milestones".

He acknowledged that there are challenges due to varying levels of development among the ASEAN nations. The economic disparity is huge when Singapore is compared with Laos or Myanmar.

Singapore's leader, Lee Hsien Loong has said that 80 per cent of the work has been done. The remaining 20 per cent relates to agreements on difficult sectors – agriculture, aviation and services.

At last week’s meeting, the ASEAN leaders agreed to leverage upon ongoing work to establish what is known as the AEC -- the ASEAN Economic Community. Identified as a key initiative was the creation of the ASEAN Single Window, which involves developing an inter-connecting National Single Window (NSW) within each ASEAN member country.

Sanchita Basu Das, a Singapore-based academic/researcher on ASEAN at the ASEAN Studies Centre, Institute of South East Asian Studies, says the national single window system is expected to benefit the ASEAN trading community by processing clearance of goods at the border through a single submission of data.

Das, author of a forthcoming ISEAS publication, ASEAN Economic Community Scorecard: Performance and Perception, says Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have already implemented their NSWs, with roll-out plans for major ports and airports by 2015.

Brunei and Vietnam are in advanced stages of development, while Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are still in the early stages of NSW implementation, and it would require a great effort for them to implement by 2015.

Tariffs are low in ASEAN, but observers believe the level of non-tariff barriers has been creeping upwards, and that these remain as the biggest stumbling block to achievement f an ASEAN single market.

The truth is that not all leaders went to Bandar Seri Begawan with the economic community front-of-mind. Some had their own agendas.

The Philippines wanted to seek endorsement from its peers to take a collective stand to engage China in negotiations to resolve the South China Sea dispute.

Manila brought up the issue last year, but the then-Chair of ASEAN, Cambodia (a close ally of China), virtually shut down discussions on a proposal to bring about some kind of code of maritime conduct in the region.

* Florence Chong is Editor of ATI Magazine.