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Opportunities and Challenges of the ASEAN Economic Community

1100–1230, Friday 15 April 2016, L1

Megha Kumar
Oxford Analytica

The establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) on 31 December 2015 was hailed as a major milestone in the regional economic integration agenda, offering opportunities in the form of a huge market of US$2.6 trillion and over 622 million people. In theory, the AEC created a single market and production base, allowing the free flow of goods, services, investments, and skilled labour, and the freer movement of capital across the region. 

Yet even before its inception, it was criticised as being ineffective, overwhelmed by complexities and contradictions, and a tool of neoliberal corporate interests. A lack of a robust and sound institutional architecture makes it difficult to ensure compliance and effective implementation of targets by national governments and agencies. There is no an overarching regional mechanism that ensures the smooth coordination of the vast array of government actors from the different national sectors, ministries and agencies. Although 95 per cent of tariff lines are at zero, non-tariff barriers on goods and services render cross-border trade particularly painful. Consumer laws, intellectual property rights, land codes, and investment rules have yet to be harmonised at the regional level, while the lack of common, integrated banking structures, alongside the absence of an agreement on common and acceptable currencies, are likely to hinder market access for regional small and medium-sized enterprises. Crucially unresolved is the question of the free movement of labour, with many ASEAN countries imposing heavy requirements on firms wanting to employ skilled foreigners, even as millions of marginalised “unskilled” migrants, from domestic workers to fishermen, illegally flit between countries. Finally, critics argue that the neoliberal nature of the AEC means it will excessively benefit corporate interests, not the majority of the region’s population, resulting in worsening poverty, inequalities of wealth, resources, power and opportunities between countries. Economic integration will be of little significance, and indeed may worsen inequality and exploitation in Southeast Asia if it is not backed by sound political reforms that give Southeast Asia’s people a greater voice in their governance.

This panel discusses the implications of the AEC for those outside ASEAN, and in particular for the UK, from a variety of perspectives. What are the risks? What are the benefits? Is there genuinely a regional market, or  do governments and businesses still have to approach ASEAN on a state-by-state basis? Can ASEAN effectively pursue coherent economic integration on the sole basis of voluntary commitments – especially given the extreme diversity of the region? Can the AEC foster equitable and sustainable growth? What role and responsibilities does the UK have in the AEC? 


  • Chair: Megha Kumar (Oxford Analytica)

Megha Kumar is Deputy Director of Analysis at Oxford Analytica. Besides helping to run the Analysis Practice, she is responsible for the coverage of South Asia and parts of South-east Asia in Oxford Analytica’s flagship Analysis product, the Daily Brief. An Indian specialist, Megha has published academic articles and book reviews, and worked as a freelance journalist for two years in Delhi. Her book Communalism and Sexual Violence in India: The Politics of Gender, Ethnicity and Conflict will be published by I.B. Tauris in April 2016.

  • SK Lingam (ASEAN-UK Business Forum) 

An international corporate consultant, Datuk SK Lingam (SK) is President of the ASEAN UK Business Forum (AUBF), Chairman of Malaysian Link UK (MLUK), and Snr. Vice President of the Friends of Barisan Nasional UK.

  • Christine Shields (Shields Economics)

Christine Shields is founder of Shields Economics, a macro-economic analysis and country risk advice consultancy. A long-standing expert in global economic affairs and political risk assessment, she is an experienced presenter and commentator on current issues and has traveled extensively, especially in Asia. Her distinguished commercial career, most recently in Standard Chartered Bank, included advising governments and policy makers, as well as running the country risk analysis function in both Standard Chartered Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland. Latterly, she has been a lead economist at Oxford Economics, one of the world’s foremost independent global advisory firms.

  • Jeremy Grant (Financial Times Confidential)

Jeremy Grant is Managing Editor of FT Confidential Research, joining following an 18-year career as a journalist with the Financial Times. His most recent role was as FT correspondent based in Singapore (2012-2015), where he covered Singapore, Malaysia and corporate issues across South-east Asia. He has also worked as a correspondent in Vietnam and Hong Kong, the US and Germany.