Last week the ASEAN Summit and its associated preparatory meetings took place in Brunei. Here are a few developments related to the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC):
- The leaders confirmed that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) talks with China, Australia-New Zealand, Korea, India and Japan will start next month in Brunei.
- The leaders confirmed that Hong Kong will have to negotiate its own bilateral FTA with ASEAN, rather than accede to the ASEAN-China FTA. An ASEAN FTA with Hong Kong will in all likelihood be delayed until the late stages or end of the RCEP talks, since Hong Kong will not want to have FTA terms that are inconsistent with what China will get under the RCEP, nor will ASEAN wish to do otherwise.
- The leaders repeated that the ASEAN Finance Ministers will sign off on Protocol 7 of the ASEAN Framework Agreement on the Facilitation of Goods Transit. As discussed in previous posts the political obstacle to ending the fifteen years of impasse on this issue was removed by the Malaysia-Singapore land and rail deal concluded three years ago.
- Timor Leste will be allowed to participate in future ASEAN meetings, and its application for full membership was recognized by the leaders. However, it was not confirmed exactly how Timor Leste would participate and what its status would be during the meetings, nor the extent to which Timor Leste would participate (only ASEAN Summit meetings? Community council meetings? Ministerial meetings?). Nevertheless this is a small gesture to encourage Timor Leste to continue with its application.
- The leaders repeated calls for a common ASEAN tourist visa, an ASEAN business travel card for visa-free business travel, ASEAN connectivity, ASEAN single window, and other aspects of the AEC. The latest AEC scorecard index was noted as 77.54%.
Of course, the biggest development of the ASEAN Summit in Brunei was the lack of controversy regarding the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea issue. This represents a success for Brunei’s “no-drama” approach to the ASEAN Chair role, an approach welcomed after last year’s term with Cambodia as ASEAN Chair.