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Opportunities and challenges in EU-ASEAN trade relations

Opportunities and Challenges in EU-ASEAN Trade Relations

By Xuan Loc DOAN

2 July 2012

A key feature of the external relations of the EU (European Union) and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) since mid-2000 is their preference for – and focus on – Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). However, while the EU and ASEAN have both  successfully negotiated a significant number of FTAs they have failed to establish one between themselves. They began to  negotiate an agreement in 2007, abandoning the process two years later in the face of seemingly insurmountable economic and political differences. Subsequently, the EU has initiated discussions with individual ASEAN members, though no agreements have yet been signed. This paper examines both the general shift towards FTAs and the factors that lead the EU and ASEAN to start and then halt discussion of a region-to-region agreement.


1. A shift to FTAs

Following the failure of the Doha Round of the WTO (World Trade Organisation) in Cancun in 2003, there has been a major shift away from multilateral agreements and towards FTAs and Regional Trade Agreements (RTA). This is a trend that the EU was late in following, compared to its major competitors, notably the US (United States), and, to a lesser degree, Japan. The realisation that if the EU did not change its policy it could be seriously  disadvantaged prompted a shift in EU policy. This was marked by the European Commission’s Global Europe: Competing in the World, which highlighted the major changes in the global economy, e.g. the emergence of new economic powers, notably China, noting that these changes created opportunities for growth and development of the EU on an unprecedented scale. Yet, it also underlined that these changes created concerns for the EU, i.e. increasing competition for access to markets and raw materials (European Commission 2006: 2-3). The two core elements of the EU’s new agenda were stronger engagement with major emerging economies and regions and a sharper focus on barriers to trade behind the border. More significantly, the EU identified the establishment of bilateral trade agreements with either single countries or regional groupings as a key instrument for the EU to increase its competitiveness (European Commission 2006: 10-1). Overall, the EU’s current trend of FTAs is predominantly commercial-oriented. This new posture significantly differed from its policy in the 1990s, during which the EU focused on establishing Association Agreements with Eastern/Central European countries in order to prepare them for the membership of the EU. With its Neighbourhood Policy, the EU also sought to establish cooperation agreements with countries surrounding its borders, such as the Euro-Med Association Agreement in order  to foster stability (Boening 2009). These agreements, like those established with the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, were politically or security-oriented. In addition, the EU had established region-to-region FTAs with such groups as ECOWAS and ANCOM, which were primarily aimed at promoting regional integration and serving as development tools. 

On the ASEAN side, after being very badly affected by the 1997/98 Asian Financial Crisis, its members sought to restore their economies and to rebuild the organisation. A particularly significant move was to advance relations with its major neighbours, notably China, Japan and South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. This involved the establishment of a number of ASEAN-plus mechanisms. These include ASEAN + 3, i.e. ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea, and East Asia Summit (EAS), which was inaugurated in 2005 and now consists of 10 ASEAN countries plus eight of ASEAN’s major partners (China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the US). In addition,  ASEAN countries have established a large number of FTAs (Chart 1).


Besides the bilateral FTAs, ASEAN as a whole also negotiated preferential trade agreements with a number of major regional powers. The first of these was the Framework Agreement (FA) on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation to establish an ASEAN-China FTA. Under this FA, which was first proposed in 2000 and signed in 2004, both sides signed a Trade in Goods Agreement, Trade in Service Agreement and an Investment Agreement in 2004, 2007 and 2009 respectively. These eventually paved the way for China and ASEAN-6 (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) to establish an FTA, which came into force on 1 January 2010 and became the world’s biggest free trade area, covering a market of 1.7 billion consumers.[1] Following the conclusion of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement Framework between ASEAN and China in 2004, three other countries, namely South Korea, Japan and India signed similar agreements with ASEAN in 2006, 2008 and 2009 respectively. Australia/New Zealand also signed an agreement to establish FTA with ASEAN in 2009. These agreements have become “the major hub linking ASEAN members with the region’s larger economies” (Kawai and Wignaraja 2010: 6).



The shift of ASEAN and later the EU to bilateral and regional FTAs was a major reason behind their decision to open negotiations in 2007. Yet, it is worth noting that this move was also a result of a number of positive changes in their interaction in the early 2000s. EU-ASEAN relations had been disrupted during the late-1990s by disputes over human rights and the Myanmar problem. These issues led to the postponement of the ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting (AEMM) for several years. However, the AEMM was resumed in December 2000 and in  2003, the European Commission issued A New Partnership with South East Asia, which was an attempt by the EU to revise its relationship with ASEAN. Even though it offered a very comprehensive blueprint, covering a wide number of areas, economic issues were the primary aim (European Commission 2003). At their 14th AEMM in January 2003, the ministers extensively discussed how to reinvigorate their relationship, particularly with respect to trade. This led the EU and ASEAN to initiate a number of mechanisms, notably the Trans-Regional EU-ASEAN Trade Initiative (TREATI), which was launched during the third ASEAN Economic Ministers and EU Trade Commissioner Consultation (AEM-EU Consultation) in Laos in 2003.

At the beginning, TREATI activities focused on the facilitation of trade and  investment, the protection of intellectual property rights, industrial product standards and technical barriers to trade. However, later the EU and ASEAN agreed to modify these original priorities in order to focus on areas identified by ASEAN as critical to  its own  regional integration project, these included agriculture, fisheries, electronics, wood-based industries and cross-sector cooperation on trade facilitation and investment. Since the creation of the TREATI, a number of seminars, workshops and meetings have been held in Brussels and different ASEAN countries. A report of the European Commission DG for Trade in 2007 highlighted a number of benefits of the TREATI and its activities. These included providing ASEAN business participants with an opportunity to explain the impact of certain EU policies directly with EU officials and enabling the EU and ASEAN officials and industry representatives to interact (European Commission, DG for Trade 2007a). Overall, a major, if not the most important aim of TREATI activities,  was to prepare the foundation for a FTA between the EU and ASEAN. Indeed, during their sixth AEM-EU Consultation in 2005, both sides “agreed on the need to intensify this partnership by starting to prepare together for a possible joint feasibility study to look into, among others, a potential ASEAN-EU FTA”. Following the meeting, an ASEAN-EU Vision Group (AEVG) was established with its main objective to explore the feasibility of an ASEAN-EU FTA.


Rationales and benefits

Just after being formed, the AEVG commissioned two studies. One of these suggested that if an FTA with ASEAN was concluded it would increase EU exports to ASEAN by 24.2% (European Commission, DG for Trade 2007b) and its global exports by almost 2%. (European Commission, DG for Trade 2008). The other argued that the sheer size of the potential ASEAN markets  provided a good enough reason for the EU to prepare the ground for easier trade and investment relations (Andreosso-O’Callaghan et al. 2006: 187). An FTA with ASEAN would also enable the EU “to consolidate the commercial presence of its firms in one of the most dynamic markets in the world” (Andreosso-O’Callaghan et al. 2006: 120). In terms of trade volume, as indicated by Tables 1 and 2, ASEAN is the EU’s third biggest trading partner outside Europe (after the US and China), accounting for 5.0% and 5.2% of its total external trade in 2006 and 2010 respectively.






With regard to ASEAN, an FTA was projected to increase exports to the EU by 18.5 % (European Commission, DG for Trade 2008). While this was lower than the projected percentage gain for EU exports to ASEAN , the EU is a much more important trading partner for ASEAN than ASEAN is for the EU. In 2006 and 2010 the EU accounted  for 11.7% and 10.7% of ASEAN’s total trade respectively (Tables 3 and 4). In addition, it was believed that an FTA between the EU and ASEAN would add as much as 2% to ASEAN’s GDP by 2020, though the gains for individual members would be different, with only modest gains for its less developed countries (Bouellassa et al. 2006: 10). In addition, an FTA with the EU would provide ASEAN with an opportunity to secure improved market access in one of its major export markets as well as increase its presence in a number of promising sectors of the EU, such as agriculture and the automotive industry (AEVG 2006: 8-9). Overall, from the EU’s perspective, an FTA with ASEAN was very much part of its new trade policy and forms “part of the external dimension of a broader competiveness strategy of market opening” (Cremona 2010: 247).



The EU was also stimulated to engage with ASEAN and its members which were becoming very active in negotiating FTAs with major trade partners, particularly in East Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific Asia region. By 2006 this process was involving all the major powers except the EU (Sally 2006). There was a very real danger that the EU was being seriously disadvantaged by not establishing agreements with the increasing dynamic economies of East Asia.  In order to rectify this situation an FTA with ASEAN was urgently needed to place the EU on an equal footing with the US and other competitors in Southeast Asia (Andreosso-O’Callaghan et al. 2006: 187; AEVG 2006: 9). Like the EU, ASEAN’s decision to negotiate an FTA with the EU was shaped by key political and strategic factors. For instance, an FTA with the EU could enhance its credibility vis-à-vis its partners (Andreosso-O’Callaghan et al. 2006: 188). It was believed that engaging in negotiations with the EU could be a significant element in ASEAN’s strategy for competing with China (AEVG 2006: 9).

In short, the two studies commissioned by the AEVG  supported the  establishment of an ASEAN-EU FTA. It was stressed that it was highly probable that a wide range of  positive result would result for both organisations, not least because they “equally regard each other as an important and complementary economic partner” (Andreosso-O’Callaghan et al. 2006: 174; AEVG 2006: 8).  These conclusions were underlined in an interview by the author with an EU official in 2009: 

“If an FTA is signed it will increase trade between the two regions. The purpose of the FTA is to reach the potentials of the mutual trade and investment opportunities. From the EU’s point of view, a comprehensive FTA with ASEAN can help balance the imbalance of its trade with ASEAN as the EU has a trade deficit with ASEAN. It will also help the EU compete with ASEAN’s other major partners, e.g. China, India. For ASEAN, an FTA can increase its import to the EU. In a number of sectors, ASEAN’s exports to the EU remain below their potential. An FTA with the EU will enable ASEAN to further integration and to become a more important economic power to counter-balance the growing importance of China and India, for example, and diversify its economic relations. ASEAN countries will also benefit from know-how transfer from the EU.”


In addition, the Vision Group suggested that:


 “The conclusion by the EU and ASEAN of FTAs with third countries reinforces the strength of the case for an FTA between the EU and ASEAN. The overall gains of an ASEAN-EU FTA are stronger when considering an environment in which such a FTA occurs in conjunction with an EU-MERCOSUR FTA, as well as the various FTAs which ASEAN is currently negotiating with other developed countries.” (ASEAN-EU Vision Group 2006: 7).


Negotiations and their collapse

Given the above perceived benefits, at the eighth AEM-EU Consultations in Brunei Darussalam on 4 May 2007, the EU and ASEAN confirmed their shared desire to enhance economic relations by establishing a FTA and talks were officially launched (AEM-EU Consultations 2007). However, after seven rounds of negotiations without any significant progress, the process was abandoned two years later. As underlined by the EU’s Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht (Marshall 2012) and confirmed by another EU official during an interview with the author, there were two key reasons for the suspension of a region-to-region deal between the EU and ASEAN. One is political and one is economic-related.

With regard to the first, as a matter of regional solidarity, ASEAN wanted a region-to-region agreement, which included all of its ten members. In contrast, the EU wanted to exclude Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, arguing that their  levels of economic development did not justify their participation. With regard to Myanmar, the EU maintained that due to its political situation, notably its human rights record, it could not be involved. This  reflected the manner in which Myanmar had become a major concern for the EU before the start of the negotiations and it was to be a persistent stumbling block. Indeed, an EU Trade counsellor, Jean-Jacques Bouflet, said in 2006 that the political situation in Myanmar “is the main issue that we have to consider as we decide whether to proceed on free-trade association negotiations with” ASEAN (quoted in Pratruangkrai 2006). In August 2007, the disagreement over whether the negotiation process should include all of ASEAN’s members became a central concern when Javier Solana, who was the EU’s then foreign chief, insisted that Myanmar should not be included in the trade deal. Indeed, during a meeting with ASEAN Foreign Ministers at the 14th ARF in Manila, Philippines on 2 August 2007, he said that the FTA “would not be an agreement with ASEAN as such. It would be with member states of ASEAN” (quoted in Landingin 2007). In contrast, from the beginning, ASEAN stressed a preference for a region-to-region FTA with the EU (Cuyvers et al. 2010: 281). Alberto Romulo, Philippines’ Foreign Secretary, said that Myanmar should be included in any trade deal with the EU (quoted in Landingin 2007). Some days before the seventh and last round of negotiations in March 2009, Mari Pangestu, Indonesia’s Trade Minister, also maintained that ASEAN wanted to negotiate as a group with the EU. According to her, “if there’s going to be an ASEAN-EU FTA then it has to be region to region. ASEAN has not changed on that position” (quoted by Chanel News Asia 2009).

Concerning the second key reason, as identified by identified by De Gucht, there existed diversities in ASEAN countries that made a single deal extremely difficult. During his visit to Thailand, in June 2008, De Gucht, Belgium’s then Foreign Minister and currently (2010-2014) the European Trade Commissioner, emphasised that because there was not a homogenous bloc of ASEAN countries, “you need many rules and provisions adapted to meet various national conditions” (quoted in Ganjanakhundee 2008). During an interview with the author, an official at the European Commission also drew attention to the complexities that would be caused by the major differences within ASEAN. These were most striking with respect to level of development and trade dependency. At the extremes, Singapore with a GDP per capital of US$ 36,379 and trade the equivalent of 259.3% of GDP, contrasts starkly with Myanmar’s US$ 571 and 38.3% (ASEAN Secretariat 2010; IMF 2010). These types of differences led to ASEAN members having significantly differed trade policies, and in consequence, different levels of ambition in negotiating an FTA with the EU. This meant that  for ASEAN as whole it was not possible to go beyond a purely goods-FTA, while the EU wanted a broader and comprehensive agreement, which included issues such as labour standard, intellectual property rights and climate change. Given that the latter group of issues were priorities for the EU, and most of the ASEAN members were far from ready to discuss them, it is perhaps not surprising that when taken with the Myanmar issue, the negotiations collapsed. However, there were other contributory factors.

Of particular significance was the lack of cohesion in ASEAN in institutional terms, which hindered the negotiation process and cast doubt on the effectiveness with which  any  FTA agreement would be implemented. For while the European Commission was mandated to negotiate with ASEAN on behalf of the 27 EU members, this was not the case for ASEAN. There was no institutional equivalent to the EC, and  neither the ASEAN Secretariat nor the ASEAN rotating president was given the mandate to negotiate for all ASEAN members.

ASEAN’s heavy schedule of FTA negotiations was another factor that impacted adversely on the  discussions with the EU. For at the same time ASEAN was also in the process of negotiating and concluding FTAs with China, Japan, India and South Korea. A point underlined by Peter Mandelson in remarks to the European Parliament on 7 May 2008. According to him, the various negotiation were so stretching ASEAN’s capabilities that “it is hard to see the timeframe for a full region-to-region agreement as less than three to four years” (Mandelson 2008).


Negotiations with individual ASEAN countries

In the aftermath of the suspension of ASEAN-EU FTA talks, EU members gave the green light for the Commission to pursue negotiations with individual ASEAN countries. This began with Singapore, which is the EU’s biggest ASEAN trading partner. In 2011, Singapore ranked 13th among the EU’s major trading partners, accounting for 1.4% of the EU’s total trade (see Table 5). In 2010, the EU was Singapore’s second largest trader (after Malaysia), representing for 11.6% of its total trade (Eurostat 2012b). EU-Singapore FTA negotiations was launched in 3 March 2010 and since then a number of negotiating rounds between the two sides have taken  place. It appears that significant progress has been made. In June 2011, the EU’s chief negotiator, Rupert Schlegelmilch, said the EU and Singapore set to complete the negotiations because in all the chapters, they were very advanced. However, he also acknowledged that the EU and Singapore “are still discussing a broad range of issues which include the rule of origin, procurement, technical norms and others”. The extent of these issues is perhaps reflected in the expected completion date of late-2011 not being met  and by February 2012 agreement being described as “a few months away” (Straits Times 13 February 2012). 


The second ASEAN country with which the EU started negotiations for an FTA was Malaysia. This  is the EU’s second largest ASEAN trading partner and ranked 22nd among the EU’s major trader in 2011, with 1.0% of the latter’s external trade (see Table 5) whereas the EU is Malaysia’s fourth biggest commercial partner, accounting for 10.9% of its trade in 2010 (Eurostat 2012c). The EU and ASEAN launched FTA negotiations on 10 September 2010 and six rounds of negotiations have taken place so far, with the last round taking in February 2012. Both sides aim to conclude the negotiations sometime this year, i.e. 2012. However, as the case of EU-Singapore FTA negotiations illustrates, they may not reach a final agreement this year as expected and may have to extend the negotiations.

Vietnam is the third ASEAN country that has started the process of negotiating an agreement with the EU. In 2010, both sides initialled a Partnership Cooperation Agreement, which was a first step towards establishing closer economic and political relations and the formal launch of negotiations on FTA. At the sideline of the 11th ASEAN-EU Economic meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 31 March 2012, EU Trade Commissioner De Gucht and Vietnamese Minister for Industry and Trade Vu Huy Hoang concluded preparations for starting negotiations on a bilateral FTA by signing a scoping paper that covered the topics to be included in the future trade negotiations. This was an important stepping stone towards launching trade negotiations between the two sides. In a statement after the signing of the paper, De Gucht said that the EU and Vietnam “are complementary economies with much to gain from even closer cooperation” (European Commission, Press Release 2012). While Vietnam ranks 35th among the EU’s major trading partners (see Table 5), the EU is the former’s third biggest trader, after China and the US, accounting for 12.3% of Vietnam’s total trade in 2010 (Eurostat 2012d).

The EU also plans to open FTA negotiations with other ASEAN countries, such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. However, this does not mean that the EU has  abandoned  the  idea of a region-to-region agreement. Indeed, the importance of this was stressed by EU Trade Commissioner De Gucht during his speech at the EU-ASEAN Business Summit on 1 April 2012, in Phnom Penh, in which he made it clear that a regional approach rather than a country by country basis remains the EU’s overarching goal (De Gucht 2012).


3. Some concluding remarks

The failure of  EU-ASEAN negotiations over a region to region FTA took place despite  agreement over the very significant economic and, for ASEAN, strategic benefits that such an agreement would produce. This would seem even more surprising given that both  organisation have a strong preference for FTAs as means of furthering their interests. However, it is clear with the  benefit of hindsight that the negotiations were doomed from the outset. This a reflection of the very great differences between the two regional  bodies. They  have very different priorities and approaches to international relations in general and FTAs in particular. This was most apparent with respect to the EU’s emphasis on intellectual property rights and human rights. The lack of coincidence of priorities was exacerbated by the very great diversity within ASEAN itself and lack of the necessary institutional structure to produce an agreed set of goals. Major differences in levels of development and trade dependency meant that there was little agreement over priorities and trade policy. Whether  a series of bilateral agreements between the EU and more advanced and trade dependent members of ASEAN will be more successful remains to be seen. It could be that a gradual production of a series of FTAs could lead to a full region to region agreement, however, that would rest on significant convergence within ASEAN and emergence of the necessary regional institutional structure and processes. While there is progress, notably with respect to  the adoption of the ASEAN Charter in 2007 and the 2015 target for full establishment of AFTA, many doubts remain.

 About the author: 

Xuan Loc Doan is a research associate at the Global Policy Institute. He has almost completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University. His current research interests include interregionalism, EU’s relations with Asia and ASEAN, ASEAN’s relations with major powers, politics and international relations in the Asia-Pacific region”.




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[1] This free trade area is scheduled to become even larger by 2015 when Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam join.