Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Upgrading the US-ASEAN Relationship

While attending the East Asian Summit this weekend in Kuala Lumpur, U.S. President Barack Obama invited ASEAN leaders to attend a special summit in the United States next year.  This is not the first time a U.S. President has made such an invitation, but (hopefully) it seems that the factors that waylaid the last such proposal won’t do the same to this one.  The proposed 2016 summit also demonstrates the usefulness of addressing U.S. relations with Southeast Asian countries within the ASEAN context, rather than on a bilateral basis, something that should be institutionalized and built upon.

The invitation comes on the heels of an “upgrading” of U.S.-ASEAN relations to a “strategic” level, with a 5 year plan for cooperation on political-security, economic and socio-cultural issues.

Political-security issues include maritime issues (e.g. the South China Sea), terrorism, trafficking in persons and refugees.

Economic issues include the ASEAN Single Window, trade facilitation, investment, support for SMEs, as well as the ASEAN-United States Expanded Economic Engagement (E3) Initiatives (which hopefully can be beefed up to help ASEAN members like Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia build capacity to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), now that we actually know what would be required by the TPP).

Socio-cultural issues include human rights, climate change, youth and women’s programs, among others.

Although many of these programs already exist, the “upgrade” institutionalizes these aspects of the relationship.  Regularizing the special summit proposed for 2016 would also help with the “upgrade,” expanding beyond the current U.S.-ASEAN summit that is held on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit. 

This is not a new idea. Then-U.S. President George W. Bush proposed a similar U.S.-ASEAN summit to be held at his Crawford ranch. However, that proposal faded away mainly due to objections to the potential participation of the Myanmar military regime.  The Bush administration thus was denied its opportunity to conduct its own “upgrade.” 

Times and sensitivities have changed.  Now that Myanmar appears set to continue its political and economic reform, its participation is much less of an issue.  Furthermore, participation in the 2016 special summit would be an incentive for Aung San Suu Kyi’s victorious party and the military to reach agreement on an acceptable president for Myanmar. 

Moreover, engaging ASEAN as a group allows the United States to continue relations with countries which would be more problematic on a bilateral basis, such as Thailand and its current military government.  For example, the presence of the Thai prime minister at the U.S.-ASEAN summit did not cause any difficulties.  In fact, the U.S. has indicated that Thailand’s military government would not prevent Thailand from joining the TPP.  This reflects the continued balancing between geopolitical concerns and aspirations for the region.

In any event, institutionalizing the “upgrade” in U.S.-ASEAN ties is both welcome and necessary, given the upcoming 2016 elections.  Regardless of who the next U.S. President is after November 2016, he or she will have a better set of tools to work with Southeast Asia.

NB: Since Thanksgiving is celebrated this Thursday in America, here is a link to a Straits Times op-ed I wrote on this very unique holiday.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Wrap-Up of the 27th ASEAN Summit

This weekend ASEAN held the second of its summits for 2015, along with related meetings with ASEAN partners including the United States, China, India, Australia, Korea, Japan and the United Nations.  With regard to the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the major development was the formal announcement of the establishment of the ASEAN Community, inclusive of the AEC, ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) with effect from December 31, 2015.   Although this had been generally anticipated for years, what may seem like a formality to some is still a significant step in the regional integration of Southeast Asia.

Just as important is the declaration of further ASEAN integration, with the next milestone being 2025.  This sets forth Blueprints for the 3 ASEAN Communities under the rubric of “ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together”, along with the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) Work Plan III (we’ll have a later post analyzing the AEC 2025 blueprint).  The Declaration tasks the ASEAN Secretariat with monitoring and reporting on implementation of the AEC 2025 blueprints.

There were other related developments which we cover in summary below:
  • ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services (AFAS) – the Summit confirmed that completing the final rounds of AFAS would extend beyond the anticipated 2015 conclusion date and into 2017. Notably, there was no mention of the ASEAN Trade in Service Agreement (ATISA) so it appears that the start of ATISA talks has been delayed as well.
  • ASEAN Integration Report 2015, the ASEAN Investment Report 2015 and AEC 2015: Progress and Key Achievements – these reports were issued, summarizing progress in the implementation of the AEC (we’ll have a later post analyzing these reports). Notably, the last report indicated that ASEAN had met 92.7% of so-called “high priority measures” by October 2015, but had only met 79.5% of total AEC measures as per the AEC Scorecard. 
  • ASEAN Solutions for Investments, Services and Trade (ASSIST) – the final statement noted the establishment of ASSIST, which appears to be a revamped version of the ASEAN Consultation to Solve Trade and Investment Issues (ACT), as both are internet-based processes that allow the private sector to make non-confrontational complaints (e.g., anonymous) about trade issues (the ACT had suspended operations due to computer technical issues).
  • ASEAN-China FTA (ACFTA) – the parties agreed to upgrade the ACFTA, although there was an initial delay in signing ceremony due to a dispute on its geographical coverage that was eventually resolved.
  • Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – ASEAN and the RCEP partners set forth a goal of completing negotiations by 2016.
  • Timor-Leste’s ASEAN Application – this moved a bit, with the ASEAN Community Council of ASEAN Foreign Ministers and Senior Officials Meeting noting that the Application was a key agenda item, and the final statement stating that ASEAN looked forward both to completion of the three feasibility studies and greater opportunities for Timor-Leste to participate in ASEAN activities (Timor-Leste attended its first ASEAN meeting in October).

The summit also marked Malaysia’s handover of the chair to Laos.  Given that Laos has elected to hold both of its summits in November 2016 (thereby satisfying the requirements of the ASEAN Charter), we will have to wait a year for further developments at the leadership level.  That will give the ASEAN ministerial meetings next year, in particular the AEC, APSC and ASCC Council meetings, that much more importance in the absence of the usual Spring 2016 ASEAN Summit.

In sum, the ASEAN Summit was successful, even though the flashier deliverables such as ASEAN Common Time or a completed RCEP negotiation fell by the wayside for various reasons.  The real legacy of Malaysia’s chairmanship will be the structure of commitments made under ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together.   Now ASEAN has to start implementing them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Achieving the ASEAN Single Market in Services

Last week the ASEAN Secretariat and the World Bank jointly released the ASEAN Services Monitoring Report, a comprehensive survey of integration of services trade in Southeast Asia, and available here.   The report explains why the current approach to creation of a single market in ASEAN for services has reached its limit, as well as makes suggestions on how to move forward.  This makes the report timely as ASEAN moves on to its post-2015 ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) agenda, including the ASEAN Trade in Services Agreement (ATISA).

Currently, services trade integration is covered by the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services (AFAS). The AFAS basically adopts the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) as a baseline for integration, with ASEAN members agreeing to apply most-favored-nation (MFN) and national treatment to cross-border services trade. ASEAN members have conducted multiple rounds of negotiations and resulting agreements. 

The report concludes that although the AFAS has helped improve trade in services in ASEAN, it may have reached its limits.   By basing progress on negotiating rounds, progress has become slower and more incremental.  Although AFAS was supposed to complete its rounds by 2015, ASEAN members are preparing to extend its mandate to 2016 and beyond.  Moreover, the report finds that AFAS is focused on explicit barriers to cross-border trade in services, e.g., those measures which could violate the MFN and national treatment obligations.  However, AFAS does not deal with domestic regulatory measures in ASEAN member states which do not clearly violate the terms of AFAS, yet nevertheless create barriers to creating a single market for services in ASEAN.  As a result, AFAS risks being outpaced by services trade integration efforts in the ASEAN FTAs as well as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement.

ASEAN members are well aware of the limitations of AFAS, and so are preparing to negotiate the ATISA, which would deal with services trade in a single undertaking rather than negotiating rounds.  The report does not directly address the inchoate ATISA, but does make several worthwhile recommendations:
  • Incorporate GATS norms  -- as the AFAS is based on the GATS, ASEAN should clarify the legal value that WTO panel decisions and interpretive documents have in the administration of AFAS.
  • Establish an ASEAN services monitoring system – this would remedy the current lack of information on compliance with AFAS and other ASEAN agreements affecting services trade.
  • Provide guidance on ASEAN services trade – the report suggests that ASEAN could provide for nonbinding guidance on ASEAN services trade issues, which would also improve transparency and communications with the private sector; the report also calls for upgrading the current ASEAN Coordinating Committee on Services into a permanent group of experts.
  • Improve ASEAN dispute resolution – the report calls for making the current Enhanced Dispute Settlement Mechanism (EDSM) more robust, as well as allowing the EDSM process to issue interpretive decisions that would not be based on a formal dispute between members.
  • Address domestic regulatory measures – ASEAN members need to administer such measures in a more cohesive manner to achieve convergence, if not harmonization; the report supports creating a regulatory checklist of principles that would be applied to determine whether domestic measures are consistent with the goal of creating a single market in services, as well as more intensive cooperative efforts on a sectoral basis, particularly for heavily regulated sectors such as aviation.
  • Eliminate barriers to establishment – the report calls for removing ceilings on the foreign equity ownership of service providers.
  • Apply a negative list approach – the report recommends that any successor agreement to AFAS apply a negative list approach to services, e.g., that its liberalizations would apply to all sectors except those otherwise reserved, such as in the ASEAN Comprehensive Investment Agreement (ACIA). 

Although the report recommends strengthening the ASEAN institutions and processes, it does not suggest whether that should be done by the ASEAN Secretariat or by a standing committee of ASEAN members.  Given that report was co-authored by the ASEAN Secretariat, that is understandable.  In addition, the report does not specifically address movement of natural persons, which again is understandable given its highly sensitive nature.

In any event, it is clear from the report that the current ASEAN approach to services integration has reached its limits.  Whether through ATISA, RCEP or some enhancement of the ASEAN institutions and processes, ASEAN needs to move beyond the current AFAS approach if it is to achieve a true single market for services in Southeast Asia.