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Economic Regionalism is Key to Openness and Growth: An ASEAN Perspective
Published August 3, 2018
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The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are involved in several regional economic arrangements, not only their own ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), but also those in a bigger geographic area, such as the ASEAN+1 Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). A subset of these countries are partaking of Asia-Pacific deals, namely the latest Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Some are pursuing bilateral deals in pursuit of deeper economic cooperation. Finally, all ASEAN countries are members of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which although not labelled a trade agreement, is concerned with trade-related measures including transport infrastructure, policy coordination, economic connectivity through trade and investment, customs modernization, financial cooperation, and people-to-people linkages.

A common feature of all these trade agreements is that they are not just focused on removing restrictions on trade, i.e. lowering import tariffs and quotas, but are much more comprehensive and include issues like trade in services, investment, labor, intellectual property rights, regulatory standards, and health and safety rules. All of these agreements deal with cooperation measures beyond national borders and can be called deep economic cooperation. They go beyond the WTO framework and are often labeled “new regionalism,” understood as state-led projects in the context of global developments. The extent of deepness varies, mainly depending on the participating countries’ development stage and the economic competitiveness of domestic sectors.

What do the ASEAN countries aim to achieve? Theory has elucidated that governments have motives ranging from politics to economics when entering an economic cooperation arrangement. The political motives could be confidence building, i.e. if an international relationship was blemished by a history of conflict, economic cooperation can introduce a process of confidence building.3 For smaller countries, it could be seen as a means to increase bargaining power with the international community. Countries often see economic cooperation as a means to hasten their domestic economic reforms so as to increase attractiveness to foreign investors.4 Governments could follow a regionalism exercise also to defend domestic interests that are threatened by regionalism elsewhere.

As for the economic motives, countries prefer cooperation among a limited number of players as it enables continued protection in a bigger geographical space and shuns producers from non-members. This enables them to exclude “politically sensitive,” noncompetitive domestic sectors completely from trade liberalization. Finally, regional economic arrangements are essential for creating economies of scale for producers and offering a larger market for consumers, which increases attractiveness to potential investors.

This chapter elaborates on ASEAN’s perspective on economic regionalism in the Asia-Pacific. It examines key initiatives that ASEAN countries are currently negotiating or implementing in their national economies, discusses economic and strategic motives, and views the future of regionalism from an ASEAN perspective. It concludes that although the ASEAN countries are facing some uncertainties in their pursuit of economic regionalism, they will continue to support the endeavor as it serves their economic structure of openness. The countries have realized the benefits of economic integration in terms of confidence building of investors, thereby bolstering economic growth.

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