Given the extensive and wildly enthusiastic press coverage which greeted AEC 2015, the economic cooperation agreement between the ten ASEAN nations which came into effect on Jan 1 2016, one could be forgiven for thinking that the skies across the region would by now be being criss-crossed by eager executives of the world’s largest companies, all ready to hammer out deals and get their seat at the ASEAN table.
One only has to look at the statistics continually being trotted out to back up this zealous journalistic enthusiasm; 8.7% of the world’s population but only 3.2% of world GDP, rapidly rising percentage of middle class consumers, 658 million people, the world’s seventh largest economy and destined to be fourth by 2050, the world’s fourth largest exporter, with the third largest working population in the world, ahead of Europe and the US and only behind China and India, to understand from where this hyperbole emanates.
On paper at least, the numbers and the potential for enhancements thereof – growing middle class, rising education levels, young population ready to enter the workforce – look very impressive. But are things with AEC really all they seem?
Firstly, despite the trade liberalisation rhetoric, substantial non-tariff barriers remain across the region. Whether it is excessive testing prior to product type approval, lack of mutual recognition of quality standards, onerous requirements as to labelling and packaging, opaque border practices, denying the passage of foreign goods through certain ports or airports, or simply failing to apply the rules even-handedly, the ASEAN secretariat is presently too weak to ensure that tariffs are not simply replaced with other domestic restraints on trade.
Secondly, Indonesia, ASEAN’s largest economy by a substantial margin, appears an increasingly reluctant participant in the trade liberlisation aspects of AEC. In the run up to the go-live across the region, Indonesia quietly got its way on the removal of alcoholic beverages from the list of goods on which no duties will be levied. This speaks volumes as to where Indonesia sees its priorities – domestic politics and ideology above free trade, with President Joko Widodo even going as far as promising to ‘protect’ Indonesians from the effects of AEC 2015.
Thirdly, despite having removed tariffs on substantially all goods being traded between the six earliest adopters of the trade liberalisation measures envisaged by AEC 2015 by the end of 2010, intra-ASEAN trade has actually been declining each month since July 2015, while external trade has continued to grow, suggesting that tariffs are actually less important as impediments to intra-regional trade than overall economic growth.
Finally, a number of countries failed to achieve the Dec 31 2015 deadline for removal of tariffs on some goods and these will now form part of a new agreement with an extension of time. And let’s be clear on this, these goods were on lists which the countries themselves put forward as being achievable for removal from tariffs by Dec 31, 2015.
With the bumps in the road leading to the go-live of measures concerning the movement of goods, will ASEAN find it any easier to liberate the market for services, or that of jobs, or investment? Highly unlikely is the short answer.
Leaving aside the varying degrees of red-tape involved in setting up and running an enterprise of any description in countries across ASEAN, with Indonesia frequently cited as amongst the most challenging on the planet, and Singapore one of the the least, the progress on freeing up the intra-ASEAN services sector has been painfully slow and is likely to remain so.
Liberalisation of 128 sectors was postponed from 2014 to the end of 2015 with some critical sectors such as retail, wholesaling and transport opened only to a limited to degree, while banking and insurance remain firmly closed. In fact, a World Bank report published in April 2015 found that trade in services policies in ASEAN are more restrictive than in any other region in the world except the notoriously challenging, and family group-dominated, Persian Gulf.
A pivotal and high-profile plank in the liberlisation of services due to have been in place by the time of AEC 2015’s go-live, for example, was an open skies agreement, allowing airlines to fly from their home base to any city in ASEAN. This has simply been left at the departure gate due to the reluctance of Indonesia to open airports outside of Jakarta, and by the Philippines’ refusal to open up Manila.
This was but the first major milestone in the ASEAN Single Aviation Market (ASEAN-SAM), but there are a great many more freedoms, and the related investment that would follow, that will be denied if this basic concept cannot be pushed through.
The benefits that would accrue from having an integrated financial services sector and easier access to cross-border capital markets should be obvious to all. Despite this, leaders within ASEAN are trying to protect their modest financial services and capital markets, with the result that manufacturers and exporters lose out on access to competitive funding and services as a result, and job creation that depends on it stalls.
A lack of size, liquidity, expertise and recognised regulatory standards will continue to be the main barriers to growth of banks in the less developed markets of ASEAN, while robust and experienced institutions in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand have to wait on the sidelines.
On the labour front, there is an agreement to permit cross-border movement of workers but it presently covers only eight occupations; doctors, dentists, nurses, engineers, architects, accountants, surveyors. Notwithstanding that there continues to be a shortage in all eight categories across the globe, and that this represents a tiny fraction of the total workforce in ASEAN, the natural direction of migration would be to Singapore, where taxes are lower and salaries are higher, but then this is the case already for those who are qualified and motivated.
So, the recognition agreement is in place but the people and the qualifications are not, and even if they were, there is still no mutual recognition of those qualifications. Professionals eligible to migrate to Singapore will likely be required to have qualified in Singapore in the first place, or at least in one of the institutions that Singapore recognises, many of which are outside of ASEAN, and in countries such as the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
In fact, companies surveyed by the US Chamber of Commerce in 2015 again highlighted the lack of suitably qualified personnel as one of the major deterrents to investing in ASEAN countries, and not just in those eight positions, but across the board. Other issues cited as barriers to committing investment or expanding within ASEAN include the inconsistent enforcement of national laws, corruption both in dealings with governments and in the prviate sector, and poor infrastructure.
Given the lack of concrete trade and workforce initiatives likely to flow as a result of AEC 2015, is it all doom and gloom? Should we be expecting business in ASEAN to stagnate?
Far from it!
If anything, the lack of dramatic change brought about by AEC 2015 points to three of ASEAN’s great strengths; stability, diversity, and growing economies. Despite differences in race, language, religion, culture, history, levels of education, previous cold war alliances, and colonial legacies or lack thereof, the ASEAN nations have shown that they are capable of settling their differences peacefully and relatively amicably. And we all know that two of the factors that investors crave, amongst many other things, are peace and stability.
The region’s economies have ably demonstrated that they can grow independently of each other, albeit at different speeds, and with varying levels of consistency. Indeed, ASEAN already has more companies on Forbes’ Global 2000 list than India, Brazil, or Russia. By fostering greater intra-regional trade – ASEAN’s stands at around 27% compared to the EU’s much healthier 60% – the South East Asian nations will be more resilient to external shocks, such as the current slowdown in China which is putting a dampener on exports.
Furthemore, ASEAN countries tend not to deal in absolutism in their discussions with each other. Rather, they deal in pragmatism, which is to say that the failure of one or two countries to meet all of their obligations under a particular agreement is seen as a partial success rather than a complete failure.
Expectations are deliberately set at achievable levels, meaning that removal of most goods from duty tariffs, as has been achieved, for example, is the basis on which to cooperate further rather than enter into a dispute resolution process over missed targets. That further cooperation is envisaged in the new AEC 2025 Blueprint, which sets out broad aims in the areas of economic cohesion, sectoral cooperation, competitiveness, and people-centricity.
The truth is that AEC 2015 was never intended to be the big bang that we saw in 1992 in Europe with the Single European Act. That particular milestone was a deliberate step, along with the Common Foreign and Security Policy, and Police and Judicial Cooperation agreement, on the road to the European Union we see today, and itself an intended precursor to eventual political union.
So if there is no obvious and immediate trade impact and no political road map then what’s the significance of AEC 2015 and where do we go next?
The fuller answer to what’s next is more likely to lie outside of ASEAN, and specifically with Japan, Korean, the EU and the US. China will also be a significant players but for slightly different reasons. With their rapidly greying populations and low rates of economic growth back home, companies in the developed world need new ideas, new markets, and new people to put them into place, and ASEAN ticks a number of these boxes.
Of the North Asian countries, Japanese, and to a lesser degree Korean, manufacturers, are already well represented in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. They are able to source or manufacture within ASEAN, and then use the ASEAN FTA network to export globally.
The cost advantages are potentially huge if for example, lower end sub-assemblies can be built in lower cost ASEAN countries, and final assembly undertaken in Singapore or Malaysia. Indeed Japan has been the biggest investor in the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia in recent years.
EU and US companies have historically been significant and enthusiastic investors in ASEAN, although these flows have largely been confined to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Significant expansion of EU and US investment interest beyond these three economies will largely hinge upon the ability of ASEAN’s developing economies to significantly raise education levels, reduce corruption, increase transparency, and improve infrastructure. Progress is being made in Vietnam and to a lesser extent in the Philippines, on these points, and intense cooperation with Japan is helping in this regard.
Chinese companies are already exploring offshoring production from China to ASEAN for its plentiful supply of labour, which is becoming more and more costly to secure back home, given the ageing population and rising expectations as to salary levels. Chinese companies have enjoyed good quality infrastructure back home, and have proceeded to build it themselves in Africa, wherever they have found it lacking, but this may prove challenging in South East Asia.
In summary, what AEC 2015 does is to send out an important message that ASEAN has developed as a trading bloc, will take pragmatic rather than dramatic steps to foster further cross-border trade, and is slowly progressing towards a more open investment environment. Given the lack of firm goals set out in the AEC 2025 Blueprint so far, the direction of travel is probably more important than the destination for now.