Southeast Asia FTA Mania: How 'bout US-ASEAN?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/15/2009 05:56:00 PM
The remarkable proliferation of free trade agreements worldwide--many of which commentators attribute to the stalling of the Doha round--is no more evident than in Southeast Asia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has, in recent years, inked deals with Australia and New Zealand (AANZFTA), China, South Korea, Japan, and India. Not that this remarkable proliferation of trade deals has necessarily created intraregional trade; far from it so far.

It is thus with some amusement that I note the granddaddy of dabblers in the Asia-Pacific region is making overtures to ASEAN in hopes of, yes, making yet another trade deal. Barack "I Grew Up in Indonesia" Obama is making noises to the effect that he will propose such an FTA when he comes around in the middle of November, Jagdish "Termites in the Trading System" Bhagwati be damned. From Agence-France Presse:
The United States is beginning to lay the initial groundwork for talks to forge a free trade agreement with South-east Asia, ahead of President Barack Obama's maiden trip to the region. A senior US senator will propose a resolution on Tuesday encouraging Obama administration officials to initiate the negotiations, warning about competition from China and other powers who have already sealed pacts with the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean).

'The United States should proceed to develop a comprehensive strategy toward engaging Asean in serious FTA discussions,' said Senator Dick Lugar, the Republican party leader in the powerful Senate foreign relations committee. Mr Lugar admitted that the free trade endeavour would be 'complex and have possible challenges to negotiation given the varying levels of economic development and open markets among Asean countries.' But he pointed out that 'China, India, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea have already finalised FTAs with Asean and are sharpening a competitive edge over the US in South-east Asia.'

Ongoing trade sanctions with military-ruled Myanmar, one of 10 Asean member states, should not deter US efforts to reach an FTA with the rest of the grouping, which also include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, Mr Lugar said.

Mr Lugar's resolution prodding the office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to pursue the free trade agreement is expected to attract support from Democratic party senators, congressional sources said. The United States at present has a free trade agreement with Singapore and has been holding talks with Malaysia for a similar pact.
Note that Senator Lugar (R-Ind.) is a longtime Asia hand. Those with long memories should recall how he helped force the ouster of former Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos way back in 1986.

On other hand, it will be interesting to see how ASEAN takes to US overtures given that the Yanquis consider Myanmar a pariah state. Is there such a thing as an ASEAN-9? More importantly, will ASEAN collectively bargain as such and accept Myanmar being ignored? It's an interesting prospect that may play out in interesting ways. The hopeful one is that the US and Myanmar come to a better understanding, including the future treatment of Aung Suu Kyi. The more realistic one is ASEAN backing down from trade negotiations without consideration of Burma. In any event, FTA mania rolls on--especially in Southeast Asia. How negotiations play out vis-a-vis the Burma question will indicate how much residual power America still commands in the region.