Southeast Asian countries just formed their own version of the EU

Ten countries Sunday signed a compact to formally establish a European Union-style organization to encourage investment and cooperation in the region.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives for an East Asia Summit meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia November 22, 2015. Also pictured are Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (seated left) and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (seated right).

Ten countries that are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Sunday signed a compact to formally establish a European Union-style organization to encourage investment and economic growth in the region.

At the East Asia Summit Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, the new organization, called the “ASEAN Community,” said its members will collaborate to allow more unrestricted movement of capital and labor in a region that’s home to upwards of 600 million people, more populous than North America or the European Union, reports Voice of America (VOA).

The ASEAN member countries are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

“Our ASEAN way has guided us and will continue to be our compass as we seek to realize a politically cohesive, economically integrated, socially responsible and a truly people-oriented, people-centered rules-based ASEAN,” said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the weekend forum that included participants like US President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, Japan Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, according to the Malaysian Insider.

In a document that outlines the organization’s goals, the members agree to cooperate in areas like combating terrorism and drug and human trafficking; increasing maritime safety and security; and encouraging economic growth across borders.

Though there has been some progress in recent decades on the lifting of tariffs for more unrestricted trade in the region, reports the BBC, progress is slow.

Part of the reason is that the diversity of wealth – the economic gap between poor countries like Cambodia and wealthy ones like Singapore, for example – and of government styles among member countries makes collaboration challenging, say those who worry that the announcement may prove purely symbolic.

Though forming of the ASEAN Community is a significant step, "It will not lead to a ‘big bang’ moment in terms of regional integration," Guy Harvey-Samuel, chief executive officer of HSBC bank in Singapore told Bloomberg.

"Instead, we are likely to see a slow initial burn that will become increasingly brighter as integration begins to get traction," he explained.

Successfully integrating ASEAN economies would help them compete with regional powers like China and India by creating the world’s seventh-largest single market, reports VOA.

According to Reuters, the ASEAN countries’ combined economic output is $2.6 trillion.

"In practice, we have virtually eliminated tariff barriers between us," said Mr. Najib, the summit host, according to Reuters. "Now we have to assure freer movements and removal of barriers that hinder growth and investment."

Najib called the establishment of the ASEAN Community “a landmark achievement” that comes more than a dozen years after the concept was first proposed.

The organization will officially launch on December 31.

ASEAN was first formed on August 8, 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand to accelerate political, economic and cultural cooperation among Southeast Asian nations. But the organization has faced endemic corruption that has stifled progress.

Observers are hoping that today’s announcement will help advance the mission of the organization in earnest.

"Time will tell if today's signing ceremony is just more style over substance,” Curtis Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank told VOA. “But come January 1, the ASEAN Community will be much less than today’s soaring rhetoric, but certainly much more than ever envisioned decades past.”

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