Southeast Asia to hog 21st century spotlightBy Rupa Damodaran
Success awaits Asean Economic Community and the growth of trade and investments could be more rapid than expected.
The rise of Asian economies holds a fascination for developed economies. If the 20th century was about the rise of China and India, the 21st would probably see Southeast Asia complete the Asian story.
In less than five years, the Asean Single Market Community will be a reality.
Together with China, India, Japan and South Korea as well as Australia and New Zealand, it will create the largest free trade area among developing countries.
It will be the most important economic zone to be reckoned with, benefiting countries such as Malaysia, the third biggest economy in the region.
Increased market access, low costs, high intra-regional trade and billions of consumers - are all too good to be passed over for any form of business.
Asean already shows much promise. Trade within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations grouping comprising Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam increased almost threefold to US$458.1 billion (RM1.5 trillion) in 2008 from US$166.8 billion (RM532.1 billion) in 2000.
Malaysia's trade with Asean was RM251.86 billion last year, up from RM173.97 billion in 2000.
It has also been a long and hard journey as the Asean Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint was conceptualised 13 years ago. The stumbling block was that two member countries could not agree on rice and sugar.
But last week, it was back on track and Asean economic ministers agreed to enforce the Asean Trade in Goods Agreement (Atiga) and the Asean Comprehensive Investment Agreement (Acia) by next month and August respectively.
Under the Common Effective Preferential Tariffs for the Asean Free Trade Area (Cept-Afta), the Asean-6 of Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia abolished tariffs on 99.65 per cent of total products by January 1 this year.
Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV economies) will reduce tariff rates to between 0 and 5 per cent on 98.86 per cent of products pending a phase-out of tariffs by 2015.
Asean members are also confident enough of the prospects of each other that intra-Asean foreign direct investment (FDI) flows jumped 42.6 per cent between 2006 and 2008. In contrast, total FDI inflows into Asean increased by just 8.6 per cent in the same period.
Cynics dismiss any similarities of the AEC to the European Union economic community, pointing out the contrasting economic strengths of economies like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia vis-a-vis Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar.
Domestic and social agendas also differ greatly between these economies.
The dissimilarities will pose a challenge to the bloc as it pushes for cross-investments which, Asean secretary-general Dr Surin Pitsuwan stresses, is crucial for the region to realise its economic integration goal.
But Asean can also learn from multinational companies that have drawn up strategies according to the strengths of various economies in which they are present.
To sum it all, with the regional and individual strengths, success awaits this young AEC and the growth of trade and investments could be more rapid than expected.
The lack of a single currency should not pull back the AEC dream as regional central bankers figure out ways of using local currencies, relying less on the greenback.
Monetary cooperation is a move which will be lauded by most as the economic community will need to show that a regional payment method for commercial trade is feasible, and it would be reasonable to take a leaf out of the Chinese experience.
Last month, Asean as well as China, Japan and South Korea launched a US$120 billion (RM383 billion) regional currency swap agreement, giving them a safety net against future liquidity shortages.