Southeast Asia bangs the drum for single market

Kuala Lumpur, November 22

Southeast Asian leaders today symbolically declared the establishment by year-end of an EU-style regional economic bloc, but diplomats admitted it will be years before the vision of a single market can be realised.

At the group’s annual summit, held this year in Kuala Lumpur, the heads of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a declaration that the bloc hailed as ‘a milestone in the integration process’.

The 10 leaders then put an aural exclamation mark on the agreement by banging once in unison on a traditional drum from each of their nations.

However, diplomats have admitted today’s declaration has no practical effect, and was largely meant to avoid having ASEAN — regularly criticised for its lack of concrete achievements — miss its own deadline of 2015.

Several years ago ASEAN set a 2015 target for launching the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), a single market with a free flow of goods, capital and skilled labour across borders.

The summit’s host, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, urged his counterparts to step up efforts to realise a vision that many experts view as difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

“We now have to ensure that we truly create a single market and production base with freer movement of goods and services with common standards, far greater connectivity and removal of barriers,” Najib said.

Achievement of that vision will cause foreign investment in the region to ‘expand exponentially’. The AEC is aimed at marshalling the combined economic force of a resource-rich and growing market of more than 600 million people to enhance its trading clout and help it compete with the likes of China for foreign investment.