By Trinna Leong
Southeast Asian nations on Sunday established a formal community that attempts to create freer movement of trade and capital in an area of 625 million people with a combined economic output of $2.6 trillion.
The community declaration was signed by leaders of the 10- member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Kuala Lumpur, this year’s host of the group’s annual summit.
Twelve years in the making, the ASEAN community is a landmark in the 48-year history of a group founded at the height of the Cold War as an anti-communist bulwark.
The ASEAN Community includes a political, security and socio-cultural dimension in a region with governments ranging from communist in Vietnam and quasi-military in Myanmar to the kingdom of Brunei and the boisterous democracy of the Philippines.
But it is the economic community that offers the most concrete opportunities for integration in a region whose combined gross domestic product (GDP) would make it the world’s seventh-largest economy.
In practice, ASEAN has already virtually eliminated tariff barriers among the 10 countries, said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, the summit host, at the signing ceremony. “We now have to ensure that we create a truly single market and production base, with freer movement of goods and services.”
At the closing news conference, however, he said ASEAN had no specific deadline for achieving zero tariffs, but would aim for “meaningful deliverables that can be done every year when we meet at the ASEAN summit.”
The combined GDP of the ASEAN economies is expected to grow from US$2.6 trillion to US$4.7 trillion by 2020, Najib said, and could become the world’s fourth-largest economy as a bloc as early as 2030.
The countries aim to harmonise economic strategies, recognise each other’s professional qualifications, and consult more closely on macroeconomic and financial policies.
They have also agreed to enhance the connectivity of their transportation infrastructure and communications, better facilitate electronic transactions, integrate industries to promote regional sourcing, and enhance private-sector involvement in the economy.
Eight groups of professionals will be able to work more easily throughout the region: engineers, architects, nurses, doctors, dentists, accountants, surveyors and tourism professionals.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.