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Economy

Hurdles remain to ASEAN trade integration

MANILA -- Much work remains to be done by Southeast Asian companies and governments to prepare for the ASEAN Economic Community, set to launch at year end.

From left: the ADB's Jayant Menon, the BDO's Nestor Tan and Kirin Holdings' Keisuke Nishimura   © Photo by Keiichiro Asahara

     With 11 months to go, some 80% of targets spelled out in the bloc's economic blueprint have so far been met, said Asian Development Bank lead economist Jayant Menon at the Nikkei Asian Review Forum in Manila.

     "We should not be obsessed with the deadline," he said, likening the AEC to a "journey" rather than a "destination."

     Much of the remaining work involves non-tariff issues including labor movement and red tape. "There are a lot of [non-tariff] measures that are there for good reason," Menon said, noting the challenge in differentiating measures designed to protect domestic companies from those serving a wider public purpose.

     Nestor Tan, president and CEO of Philippine-based BDO Unibank, said that while the general prospects for the AEC may be rosy, governments needed to make sure domestic sectors are ready.

     "In an integrated region, the stronger industries in certain countries tend to win out [and] the weaker industries tend to be marginalized," he said.

     The Philippines last year allowed full foreign ownership of domestic banks. But, though BDO is the largest lender in the Philippines, it is only 16th largest in ASEAN. Even a combination of the nation's three largest banks would only rank sixth in the region.

     Keisuke Nishimura, managing director at Japanese major brewer Kirin Holdings, said more needs to be done to make doing business in Southeast Asia more convenient. 

     "When I export a product from Vietnam to Indonesia, [I] get approval in six months," he said. "We also need to pass quality check clearance by the Indonesian government. The actual situation is not satisfactory."

     Kirin acquired around 49% of San Miguel Brewery, the Philippines' largest beer maker, in 2009. The Japanese firm has since used the acquisition as a vehicle to widen its presence in Southeast Asia.

     Despite their concerns, all of the speakers were optimistic about Southeast Asia's future as a unified economy.

     "I am optimistic, there are so much resources in these countries, and [they] can be put together to overcome [challenges]," Nishimura said.

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