A free trade offer from ASEAN

The Aus­tralian Asso­ci­at­ed Press—oblivious to the “dan­gling participle(link to a dic­tio­nary of grammar)”:http://www.tiscali.co.uk/reference/dictionaries/english/data/d0081865.html’s wry insight—confusedly report that bq. After years of court­ing the 10-mem­ber group­ing, and being stymied­by Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, ASEAN eco­nom­ic min­is­ters plan to invite Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter John Howard and his NZ coun­ter­part Helen Clark to a lead­ers’ meet­ing in Laos in Novem­ber to dis­cuss the plan. (“ninemsn”:http://news.ninemsn.com.au/Business/story_56181.asp) The Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment will be tempt­ed to respond pos­i­tive­ly and quick­ly to an invi­ta­tion from ASEAN because it will be seen by some as a sort of re-instate­ment of our “region­al cre­den­tials” after the embar­rass­ing rebuff of the 2000 Chi­ang-Mai Min­is­te­r­i­al meet­ing when Heads of State from ASEAN coun­tries reject­ed the rec­om­men­da­tions of their own offi­cials to begin nego­ti­a­tions with Aus­tralia and New Zealand. But before it goes any further—particularly on the exten­sion of an already com­plex region­al arrange­ment such as AFTA—the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment should con­sid­er how the dif­fer­ent region­al agree­ments in which we already par­tic­i­pate work togeth­er. It should have a plan to ensure that the col­lec­tion of ‘region­al agree­ments’ we are help­ing to cre­ate repeats, at far as pos­si­ble, a pat­tern of lib­er­al­iza­tion and mar­ket inte­gra­tion that could be extend­ed region-wide in the Pacif­ic.
The Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment sur­veys a broad­en­ing ‘free trade’ agen­da in the Pacif­ic region. In addi­tion to the prospects of a clos­er inte­gra­tion agree­ment with ASEAN, it has agree­ments with New Zealand and Sin­ga­pore. It is ready to rat­i­fy agree­ments nego­ti­at­ed in the past few months with Thai­land and the USA. It is prepar­ing to nego­ti­ate with Chi­na — which is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly nego­ti­at­ing with ASEAN and New Zealand. Final­ly (for the present) there is the pos­si­bil­i­ty that Aus­tralia could revis­it its for­mal rela­tions with Japan, to repair the near non-sequitur of the [[dead-end­Pol­i­cy last Howard-Koizu­mi talks]]. Clos­ing this cir­cle with a tan­gent as well as an arc, ASEAN pro­pos­es nego­ti­a­tions[⇒ relat­ed sto­ry] not only with Chi­na but also India.  The prospect is lit­tle more than a tan­gle of sep­a­rate­ly nego­ti­at­ed trade agree­ments; but it need not be. With imag­i­na­tive diplo­ma­cy on the part of Aus­tralia, the tan­gle could be re-con­fig­ured to a design not unlike the ambi­tious goals of the “APEC region­al agenda”:http://www.apecsec.org.sg/apec/about_apec.html of ‘region­al free trade by 2020’. I sug­gest­ed[⇒ relat­ed sto­ry] such a pol­i­cy agen­da in an ‘op ed’ con­tri­bu­tion to the AFR in mid-Feb­ru­ary. There is a key dif­fer­ence between the cur­rent col­lec­tion of FTAs and the APEC agen­da that makes such a “Pacif­ic-wide” free trade zone fea­si­ble now, where APEC has stalled. APEC was found­ed on a promise of ‘uni­lat­er­al lib­er­al­iza­tion’ by each Mem­ber econ­o­my that, pre­dictably, turned out to be (near­ly) emp­ty. The idea that, for exam­ple, the USA would con­sid­er offer­ing oth­er APEC mem­bers, includ­ing Chi­na, ‘free trade’ by 2010 and await China’s ‘non-rec­i­p­ro­cal’ imple­men­ta­tion of the same pol­i­cy by 2020 was lit­tle more than ivory-tow­er fan­ta­sy. It assumed that an ana­lyt­i­cal obser­va­tion (that most small coun­tries lib­er­al­ize their trade bar­ri­ers, even­tu­al­ly, on a uni­lat­er­al basis) could be made the basis of a polit­i­cal pro­gram. The cur­rent region­al nego­ti­a­tions are, by con­trast, based on rec­i­p­ro­cal oblig­a­tions that con­tain a firm pro­gram of access improve­ments embed­ded in a bilat­er­al con­tract. But there’s a sec­ond dif­fer­ence, too that is more in APEC’s favor. APEC sought a uni­form stan­dard of lib­er­al­iza­tion among mem­bers; a sin­gle ‘free trade’ ide­al. That ide­al has tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits that a series of rec­i­p­ro­cal pacts, each one craft­ed for the inter­ests of mem­bers will be hard-put to achieve. A col­lec­tion of over­lap­ping region­al agree­ments will bad­ly under­shoot the poten­tial iden­ti­fied in the APEC idea if it embodies—as a result of the dif­fer­ent terms and cov­er­age and rules of ori­gin in each pact—the sort of stul­ti­fy­ing com­plex­i­ty, ‘tai­lor­ing’ of pro­tec­tion and sched­ule rever­sals that has dogged AFTA itself since 1992.

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