by Jovito Jose P. Katigbak
Given the robust performance of the services sector and its importance to global and regional economies, ASEAN needs to continue to facilitate its services trade. Two significant frameworks  –  AFAS and AEC Blueprint  –  were established to serve as regulatory mechanisms in trade in services regionally. However, much cynicism has been expressed on the effectiveness of both frameworks and it is unclear if ASEAN is meeting/missing targets in services trade liberalization.
Defining services and services trade
Services are defined as economic activities that add value, directly or indirectly, to another economic unit. They are heterogeneous and include a wide range of economic activities. In their “Services Trade and Policy ”  (2009) paper, Joseph Francois and Bernard Hoekman recognize that this inherent diversity highlights the basic function that many services perform relative to overall economic growth and economic development: they are inputs into production. Hence, services greatly determine the productivity of the ‘fundamental’ factors of production – labor and capital – that produce knowledge, goods and other services.
The  General  Agreement  on  Trade  in  Services  (GATS)  describes  ‘trade  in  services’  through  four  possible  modes:  Mode  1:  Cross border supply; Mode 2: Consumption abroad; Mode 3: Commercial presence; and Mode 4: Presence of natural persons. At the regional level, trade in services in ASEAN continues to be dynamic as its share of world services trade has improved from 4.6   percent  in 2000 to just  over 8 percent  in 2012. ASEAN services export  to the world market amounted to almost  US$ 261 billion in 2011, which is twice more than US$ 121 billion in 2005. Likewise, ASEAN services import from the world market increased, magnifying from US$143 billion in 2005 to US$269 billion in 2011. More importantly, the services sector generates approximately 40 -50 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of ASEAN economies.
The AFAS and AEC Blueprint
At  the  5th ASEAN  Summit  in  Bangkok,  ASEAN  Economic  Ministers  (AEM)  signed  the  ASEAN  Framework  Agreement  on  Services (AFAS) of 1995 which requires ASEAN Member States (AMS) to progressively enhance Market Access and guarantee equal National Treatment for services suppliers among ASEAN countries. In accomplishing these, AFAS is supposed to: 1) enhance efficiency and competitiveness and diversify services within and outside ASEAN; 2) eliminate substantially restrictions to services trade amongst Member States; and 3) progressively liberalize trade in services by promoting GATS-plus commitments.
Another landmark framework covering the facilitation of trade in services is the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint of 2007. It resulted in AMS agreeing to conduct subsequent rounds of negotiations under AFAS and schedule liberalization commitments until 2015 based on the parameters and timelines outlined in the Blueprint. The AEC Blueprint envisions a free flow of  services within the region by removing substantially all restrictions on trade in services and increasing foreign (ASEAN) equity participation while allowing for overall flexibilities.
Notable achievements
To  date,  AMS,  under  the  purview  of  AEM,  have  held  six  rounds  of  negotiations  and  have  agreed  on  eight  packages  of  commitments. ASEAN Finance Ministers and ASEAN Transport Ministers have added four more packages of commitments in financial services since 2002 to 2011, and another four in air transport services from 2004 to 2011.
As of the final quarter of 2012, all AMS have reached the liberalization target required by the eight packages of AFAS. Commi tments undertaken by AMS cover services sectors such as air transport, business, construction, distribution, education, environmental, financial, health care, maritime transport, telecommunications, and tourism. AEM have also concluded eight Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRAs) for engineering, nursing, and architectural services, medical practitioners, dental practitioners, tourism professionals and framework agreements for MRA of surveying qualifications and accountancy services. These enable professional service providers certified or registered by the relevant authorities in their home country to be mutually recognized by other signatory AMS.
Challenges and unfulfilled promises
The liberalization of the services sector is a relatively new development compared with the trade in goods. The evolving and  intangible nature of trade in services, along with the numerous rules and regulations that govern it (policy constraints), make it difficult for the international community and for ASEAN to frequently cope with the constant changes in services trade. The recent emergence of unique services sectors and sub-sectors (especially in e-commerce) which are not covered by the GATS and the AFAS have created more problems for the region in proactively managing services trade liberalization.
Hikari  Ishido  and  Yoshifumi  Fukunaga,  in  their  “Liberalization  of  Trade  in  Services:  Toward  a Harmonized ASEAN++ FTA” (2012) policy brief, assessed the services restrictiveness index on AFAS.  It  found  that  the  ASEAN  average  for  the  AFAS  Seventh  Package  was  very  low  at  0.36, with Thailand at 0.50, Cambodia at 0.41, Singapore at 0.36, the Philippines at 0.33, and Brunei as  the  lowest  at  0.23.  Based  on  the  Hoekman  Index,1-“fully  liberalized”;  0.5-“limited  (but bound)”;  and  0-“unbound”  (government  has  not  committed  to  liberalize).  Evidently,  ASEAN registered a lower figure which highlights the region’s struggle in liberalizing its services trade.
Another criticism is the inability of AFAS and the AEC Blueprint to stimulate significant regulatory changes in Member States . According to ASEAN and the World Bank’s ASEAN Integration Monitoring Report (2013), six ASEAN countries  – Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand,  Malaysia,  Vietnam,  and  Cambodia  –  registered  an  average  Services  Trade  Restrictiveness  Index  (STRI)  of  44,  which  is higher than the East Asia Average (41) and the World Average (29). Studies suggest that mode 4 gained the least commitment. Moreover, none achieved 0 which means a fully open market. Thus, a very restrictive policy stance in essential services sectors  – professional,  transport,  telecommunications,  and  finance  –  adversely  impact  the  goal of  substantially  eliminating  restrictions  to services trade. A diverse grouping of ten Member States, particularly their economy’s structure, also poses an arduous task for ASEAN in integrating and advancing services trade. Further complications arise due to the political positioning of non -State stakeholders with protectionist interests.
Balancing national and regional interests
Considering that 2015 is the initial deadline, ASEAN has missed liberalizing much in services trade. The region’s ambitious goal  of an economic community where there is a free flow of services (including skilled labor) is primed to fall short of expectation come 2015. Restrictive and protectionist national policies and mechanisms ultimately hinder ASEAN’s push toward greater liberalization of trade in services.
The establishment of an AEC is a long and demanding process and it is high time for AMS to be more open and liberal than ever  in meeting targets and realizing commitments. To achieve this, AMS must squash fear of local displacement by communicating carefully to its general public the tremendous benefits of an effectively managed services trade in an integrated region.
At the national level, attaining inclusive growth in the Philippines entails a vibrant services trade with other AMS and an efficient services  sector  with  crucial  inter-sectoral  linkages.  To  become  competitive,  the  country  should  also  undertake  significant  policy adjustments particularly the relaxation/removal of unnecessary regulations to attract more foreign investments into the country. More importantly, human capital development through enhanced education and vocational training is vital in upgrading the country’s skills and capacities to perform better in an interconnected region.

Download PDF

*Jovito Jose P. Katigbak is a Foreign Affairs Research Specialist with the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute. Mr. Katigbak can be reached at [email protected].
The  views  expressed  in  this  publication  are  of  the  authors’ alone  and  do not  reflect  the official position  of  the  Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government of the Philippines.