Will the fledgling ASEAN Economic Community succeed?
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Will the fledgling ASEAN Economic Community succeed?

IN the dying moments of 2015, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) put pen to paper and finally made the long anticipated ASEAN Economic Community a reality. Ten nations elevated from their positions as individual states to constituent parts of the world’s newest economic bloc.

Or that, at least, is the intention. As it stands, seven nations – those of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – are full members of the AEC, whilst the three remaining nations of Cambodia, Laos and Burma (Myanmar) have been given a two year extension to work on meeting certain requirements: primarily a greater reduction of existing trade restrictions.

Even so, on paper, this is an entity to be reckoned with. As a single economy, it is the seventh largest in the world, and with a population of over 600 million its internal market is larger than those of either the EU or North America. Now, with the AEC formalized, a focus upon greater economic development and integration lying at the heart of largely liberal agenda, the future looks bright for the region. And yet, using the example of ASEAN itself as a measure of the potential gains to be made, some observers are swift to criticize its potential impact.

Indeed, ASEAN has long been held up as an example of how political entities which are divided by their respective differences do not work. And in recent years, as a perennial underperformer, the region’s economic performance has provided credible substance to that view. You would expect, for example, a region that makes up 8.7 percent of the world’s population to do significantly better than contributing only 3.2 percent of global GDP, with the local economic environment underperforming global trade since the middle of 2013. Much of this poor performance has been blamed upon any lack of real integration within either the political or economic outlook of ASEAN, an organization that is often seen as an exercise in sabre rattling with empty scabbards; a back-slapping boys club built upon the quicksand of empty rhetoric.

Weak leadership has repeatedly scuppered plans to take ASEAN forward, such as Cambodia’s failure to issue a Joint Communiqué in 2012 after failing to build consensus. Conversely, Malaysia has quite forcefully driven the rest of ASEAN towards establishing a non-partisan Economic Community, able to deal other foreign powers. The country has stood at the center of ASEAN’s move towards greater integration over the past few years and, in its role as chair for guiding the bloc towards the eventual implementation of the AEC, was greatly responsible for the regional bloc’s integration. According to Prime Minister Najib Razak, as a result of the implementation of the AEC, ASEAN is expected to register growth of 5.6 percent through to 2019, and will become the world’s fourth largest economy by 2050. The next stepping stone for the regional plan – the AEC 2025 plan presented during Malaysia’s chairmanship – will involve an emphasis on sustainable development and work towards further reducing red tape for businesses.

Feeling ASEAN?

Even a die-hard supporter of Southeast Asian efforts to integrate would be hard pressed to argue against the claim that sovereignty issues have continued to scupper the region’s progress. The principles of non-interference and decision by consensus have been integral to ASEAN’s history. There is no member nation of ASEAN that is currently free from at least some degree of nationalistic feeling; from Cambodia’s border disputes with Vietnam, right through to the increasingly despotic leadership of the Thai junta leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha. Even despite this, the diversity in the regional make up is frighteningly complex. The Southeast Asian nations consist of monarchies, juntas, communist states, and several democracies in decidedly differing states of health; Muslim, Christian and Buddhist socio-religious cultures; and an ethnic mix that is equally disparate.

In such a diverse cultural and political climate then, it is difficult to see to what degree the ASEAN nations would be able to achieve the necessary levels of integration. It is difficult to imagine, for example, that people from this region might ever be referred to as “Aseans” in the same way that we refer to Americans or Europeans. However, Southeast Asia is not alone in encountering such difficulties and the EU provides a very salient comparison. Although not quite as complex a mix as the ASEAN nations – with certain cultural, historical and educational themes underpinning European society more or less across the board – there are nonetheless enough ideological, linguistic and nationalistic differences to make complete integration a near to impossible task. Yet, the EU has succeeded to a degree to which many believed it never would, a result that boils down to cleverly demarcated lines of perception. Rather than focusing on differences, the EU has championed lines of similarity under the “unity in diversity” motto. Along with increased interactions between Europeans, this attitude has helped creating an additional regional identity that overlaps and complements the national ones.

As such, this feeling of belonging to a supranational community – the fledgling ASEAN feeling – should not to be understood in conventional terms of identity as sameness. The creation of the AEC, along with the plethora of free trade agreements pending ratification (TPP, RCEP) in the region will serve to elevate not just ASEAN’s economy but also its collective identity. As Najib remarked on the sidelines of the signing of the Kuala Lumpur declaration that established the AEC, “it would take generations to fully realise the concept of ASEAN as a community”. But the first steps are encouraging.