This week events in ASEAN illustrated the current limits of the ASEAN Economic Community in dealing with regional issues.
First is the continuing sage of the Rohingya migrants who have fled Myanmar and are now in Malaysian and Indonesian waters seeking refuge. As a humanitarian issue, of course, ASEAN faces a major task in dealing with both the causes of the migration and immediate help for the refugees. That is an ASEAN Political Security Community matter.
However, this blog has posited repeatedly that the movement of natural persons in the AEC will remain the most contentious issue in economic integration, and the Rohingya issue illustrates this point. Assuming that the AEC guaranteed full freedom of movement for unskilled workers, would those protections apply to the Rohingya (some in Myanmar dispute that they are Myanmar nationals)? Are they moving within ASEAN for economic reasons or political reasons? Who would ensure the fair application of an ASEAN movement of natural persons agreement by the countries involved – the other ASEAN members? A special ASEAN institution? And, if there are rights that re affected, who would ensure that they are upheld and provide relief? This intersection of human rights issues with the AEC is why I have termed it as the “third rail of the AEC.”
Second, at a public forum, Singapore trade and industry minister Lim Hng Kiang called for the removal of non-tariff measures (NTMs) on trade in goods and barriers to services trade:
"We know that many of you who operate in ASEAN face problems at and behind the borders. You grapple with Customs processes, documentation requirements and a complex regulatory framework.
"ASEAN countries need to be more proactive to tackle the problems… and move towards the elimination of non-tariff barriers."
See the Straits Times here for more. The question for ASEAN is how should ASEAN members be proactive? Currently ASEAN members are under no obligation to report NTMs to each other or the ASEAN Secretariat. ASEAN members report on their NTMs on a voluntary basis, without the threat of sanction other than possibly being publicly named in the AEC Scorecard – which does not happen at the moment. And, even if NTMs are identified, there is currently no effective way to compel an offending ASEAN member to bring itself into compliance, because the ASEAN Secretariat has no coercive powers and the ASEAN dispute resolution process is unused and ineffectual.
Both examples are linked to a fundamental problem in ASEAN: without obligations that can be enforced by authority exercised by an ASEAN institution, or effective dispute resolution that can be implemented, ASEAN members cannot be reasonably expected to follow ASEAN measures in the breach. This blog has repeatedly called for additional powers and/or improvements in the ASEAN processes to remedy these deficiencies. What additional powers and/or improvements will be adopted is up to the ASEAN leaders. In any event, without some fundamental reforms for the ASEAN institutions and processes, ASEAN will soon exceed, if it has not already, its inherent limits in dealing with regional problems and issues.