The economic fallout of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly severe for ASEAN, composed as it is of relatively open economies heavily interlinked with global trade networks. ASEAN countries are currently undergoing some of their worst COVID-19 waves, with lockdowns and social restrictions in force in many ASEAN capitals to deal with record daily cases and hospitalization rates. This is expected to have a significant economic drag on the region, with the International Monetary Fund having downgraded its 2021 growth projections for the ASEAN-5 countries (comprised of Malaysia, Thailand, Viet Nam, Indonesia, and the Philippines) by -0.6% to 4.3%.
As such, it is more crucial than ever for ASEAN’s policymakers to strategize their post-pandemic recovery, a key factor of which would be by furthering economic integration through trade and investments. Two crucial regional frameworks that could facilitate this include the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as well as the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Both mega-trade deals, which build upon previously signed bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements between their signatory states, would help anchor ASEAN Centrality through the opening up of domestic and regional markets for further trade and investment integration.
At a time when the merits of globalization are increasingly coming under scrutiny and populism on the rise, what would more economic openness mean for the average Southeast Asian citizen? What does each agreement bring to the table in terms of their respective opportunities and responsibilities? What are the main hurdles to ASEAN Member States ratifying these agreements, and how should ASEAN policymakers overcome public concerns and entrenched interests?