Is ASEAN serious about trade reform?

Two oppos­ing views: from the Malaysian Prime Min­is­ter and from the EC Trade Com­mis­sion­er who, almost alone this week, did not reach an agree­ment with ASEAN on the nego­ti­a­tion of a future ‘free trade’ agree­ment. The Malaysian press report­ed a speech by Prime Min­is­ter Badawi in which he referred oblique­ly to the “notorious”:http://www.inquit.com/article/288/free-trade-malaysian-style Malaysian pro­tec­tion of its auto­mo­bile man­u­fac­tur­ers in defi­ance of the ASEAN objec­tive of zero tar­iffs on mer­chan­dise by 2003. Appar­ent­ly refer­ring, also, to a renewed ASEAN “determination”:http://www.inquit.com/article/338/asean-free-trade-adventures to accel­er­ate the elim­i­na­tion of remain­ing tar­iff and non-tar­iff bar­ri­ers to trade among mem­bers, he said: bq. Mar­ket lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of the auto­mo­tive sec­tor will become a real­i­ty soon­er than many of us realise, hence, it is imper­a­tive that our local man­u­fac­tur­ers are ful­ly pre­pared for the chal­lenges ahead as opposed to being com­pla­cent or lulled by a false sense of secu­ri­ty,” (“Bernama”:http://www.bernama.com/bernama/v3/news_business.php?id=90914) Pas­cal Lamy, the EC Trade Com­mis­sion­er (for two months more), how­ev­er, takes a more skep­ti­cal view of the prospect that the ASEAN agree­ments will lead to real mar­ket lib­er­al­iza­tion. Com­ment­ing on the absence of any EC-ASEAN agree­ment on future free trade bq. He … played down the impor­tance of trade nego­ti­a­tions that have already start­ed between Asean and both Chi­na and India, as well as sim­i­lar talks Asean is sched­uled to begin next year with Japan, South Korea, Aus­tralia, and New Zealand. Those coun­tries, Mr Lamy said, had decid­ed to launch “nego­ti­a­tions first and back­load the more con­tentious reg­u­la­to­ry bar­ri­ers”. (“Finan­cial Times”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/40bd9e06-0023–11d9-ad31-00000e2511c8.html) Lamy added—with what I imag­ine to be a gal­lic sneer bq. “Most of what is on the table now is not very deep … There is a sub­stan­tial dif­fer­ence between start­ing a free trade nego­ti­a­tion and fin­ish­ing a free trade nego­ti­a­tion.” As it hap­pens, I agree with him. But I would be fail­ing my read­ers if I did not recall that the EC has “sev­er­al oth­er reasons(link to Thai news­pa­per sto­ry on shrimp exports to EC)”:http://www.nationmultimedia.com/page.news.php3?clid=6&id=120447&usrsess=1 to want to avoid get­ting into a com­pre­hen­sive FTA with ASEAN.

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