Southeast Asia needs infra buildup


    Asean, EU economic ministers, senior trade officials converge in Manila
    DIPLOMATS have said that members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) should work for economic integration and open up their bond market for long-term investment, as these would “unlock” funds to build the needed public infrastructure in the region, including the Philippines.

    Chris Humphrey, executive director of the Asean-EU Business Council, told reporters in the run-up to the 23rd AEM or Asean Economic Ministers’ Retreat as well as the 5th Asean-EU Business Summit that promoting capital and bond markets is where the Asean must focus its economic integration on, as this would generate the necessary funds for development.

    He was referring to a financial market where participants may issue new debt (primary market) or buy and sell debt securities (secondary market) in the form of bonds, but may also include notes and bills. This provides long-term funds for projects and expenditures.
    This year’s Asean-EU Business Summit, held today, March 10, at Pasay City’s Conrad Manila Hotel, is a platform for business leaders, thought leaders, and policymakers to interact and debate the key issues involving business and trade between the two blocs.

    Top trade officials of the 10-member Asean will also meet today a high-level delegation from the EU, led by its Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, for the 15th AEM-EU Trade Consultations.

    “This meeting is an important occasion to reaffirm the strong ties between the EU and Asean and our joint commitment to good trade relations,” Malmström said in a statement on Wednesday. “At the meeting, we can lay the foundation to facilitate the work of our respective businesses, and for connecting across our two regions.”

    She added that she particularly hopes to discuss with the Asean officials how the two regions can move forward in their talk on FTA or free-trade agreement.

    Other issues up for discussion are ARISE or Asean Regional Integration Support from the EU, the EU-Asean Project on Intellectual Property Rights (ECAP III), and the Asean Air Transport Integration Project (AATIP). These are all cooperation programs that provide support for the Asean economic integration.

    Malmström is set to address the summit, a major business event following the Philippines’ appointment to the Asean chairmanship last September.

    Diplomats have also described the visit as a milestone as trade and investment relations between Asean and EU, which supports the former’s economic integration, are growing, and that this could be further improved through increased trade engagements.

    EU Ambassador Franz Jessen said Wednesday that trade between Asean and EU reached €208 billion ($219.2 billion) in 2016, with EU imports from Asean doubling since 2009, while the EU-Asean trade in services amounted to €79.6 billion ($84 billion) in 2015, growing three times from 10 years earlier.

    Diplomats from both Asean and EU have described 2017 as a “strategically important year,” as it marks the 50th founding anniversary of the Asean as well as the 40th official anniversary of the EU-Asean relations and dialogues. They also noted that the EU-Asean negotiations on FTA are underway.

    Describing the Asean as “a very interesting region when it comes to trade and economy,” Swedish Ambassador to the Philippines Harald Fries told The Manila Times that the EU is currently negotiating an FTA not only with the Philippines but with the other Asean members as well.

    “There must be a free-trade agreement between the EU and all the Asean countries,” Fries said.

    The EU has concluded FTA agreements with Vietnam and Singapore which, Jessen said, would be “game-changers” as these were the most ambitious accords struck by these Asean members.

    “Getting Asean and EU industries to meet and connect is the best way forward,” Jessen said in a press conference. “Many good European companies have found their way to Asean, providing high-quality jobs and supporting growth. The business summit should encourage and help companies, especially the small- and medium-sized, to invest and to form partnerships, benefitting from the growing Asean economies.”

    Fries also revealed that the political and economic union of 28 European states is also watching the political issues in the Southeast Asian region, particularly the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea and Myanmar’s Rohingya problem.

    At the sidelines of the recently concluded Asean-EU Business Summit Conference, in Makati, Humphrey told reporters of the need to build airports, railways, roads, bridges, hotels, and schools across the region, particularly in the Philippines. So he pushed for the extension of a bond’s lifespan to make its term longer.

    He was quoted in media reports as saying that changing an economic approach to financing across the trade and political bloc would “unlock money to build the infrastructure,” pointing out that “money is not being used sufficiently” through the lending practices by local banks and insurance companies.

    Philippines’ Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, Asean Sec-Gen Le Luong Minh, and Amand Tetangco, Jr., governor of Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, are expected to attend the business summit with Asean trade ministers.

    Asean economic ministers and senior trade officials have converged in Manila for the AEM Retreat and other related meetings from March 8 to 10. On Wednesday, Asean kicked off the SEOM or Senior Economic Officials’ Meeting, in preparation for this year’s AEM Retreat.

    Led by the Philippines’ Trade Asst. Sec. Anna Maria Rosario Robeniol and Asean Deputy Sec-Gen Lim Hong Hin, the SEOM was an opportunity for senior trade officials to refine the agenda for the AEM Retreat. The agenda list included trade and investment, integrating the MSMEs—micro, small and medium enterprises—into the global value chain, and creating an innovation-driven business environment in the region.

    Diplomats said the agenda supports “inclusive, innovation-led growth,” which is one of the thematic priorities for this year’s Asean Summit.


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