Thursday, November 10, 2011

Taking Incremental Steps Towards the AEC

In today’s post, we examine recent incremental steps taken by ASEAN to realize the ASEAN Economic Community.  Considered separately, each step may not seem like much. However, taken as a whole, they evidence active foundation-building at various levels in ASEAN.

Statistics --  ASEAN announced the formation of an ASEAN Community Statistical Committee (ACSS) composed of chief statisticians and heads of government statistical offices. This may be perhaps the most prosaic yet most important development.  Without accurate and meaningful statistical data, policymakers and economic actors in ASEAN cannot conduct proper analyses and make appropriate decisions.  Current economic data collection is difficult in certain ASEAN members and certain sectors, even for the ASEAN Secretariat.  Statistics have even been a diplomatic issue between ASEAN members in the past, such as regarding bilateral trade between Singapore and Indonesia.   Hence formation of the ACSS is a big step towards economic integration.

Common Visa -- ASEAN announced that it was studying a common tourist visa for the region.  A common tourist visa essentially amounts to an ASEAN Single Window for tourists (just as freedom of movement for ASEAN nationals would require a similar effort).  This will require significant upgrades to the intergovernmental operating system in ASEAN.   As I’ve discussed before, operational linkages for the region, such as the ASEAN Single Window for goods, are inconsistently implemented. Yet improving the intra-ASEAN flow of people and goods will bring major benefits to the region, particularly as it eyes a soccer World Cup bid.     Perhaps the region’s latent soccer-mania is the necessary motivation for improvements.

Education --  the ASEAN University Network has started discussing the harmonization of academic calendars; Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar start their academic years in June while most ASEAN universities start their years in September.  An academic credit transfer system and increased use of English should also help students move around the region and learn more about their fellow ASEAN citizens.   This level of cooperation is noteworthy, particularly given the great disparity among academic institutions that would normally cause jealousies and resentments. 

Legal ASEAN law ministers met and signed off on the Terms of Reference and the Rules of Procedure of the Advisory Panel to advise ASEAN Member States on matters relating to the adoption and implementation of the UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration.  Harmonization of commercial arbitration will encourage further trade with ASEAN members with less-developed judicial systems and reduce the costs and burdens of dispute resolution.   Progress on a Treaty on the Abolishment of the requirement for Legalisation of Foreign Public Documents among ASEAN Member States, examining modalities for harmonization of ASEAN trade laws, the progressive liberalization of trade in legal services in ASEAN, and proposals for a model law on maritime security and uniform laws on legalization of documents were also discussed by the ASEAN law ministers.  Progress on all of these issues would be welcomed by the business community.

All in all, ASEAN took many incremental steps in forwarding the AEC, particularly during the run-up to the APEC Hawaii meeting and the East Asia Summit in Bali. Continued scrutiny and advocacy will be required to ensure that they lead to real progress.