The ASEAN is an economically dynamic region. The region’s economic groupings such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN Plus Three, East Asia Summit, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and Trans-Pacific Partnership portray the prevailing efforts at regional economic integration.
The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is the major security discussion platform in the Asia Pacific. All these organizations are the instruments of the ASEAN’s search for security cooperation and enhance regional economic activities in a swiftly changing globalised world. Moreover, the ASEAN region is a home of 227 world largest multilateral companies. Thus, all these organizations (members states of the organizations) and multinational companies not only enhance the geostrategic and political importance of the ASEAN region but also put Pakistan in a competitive economic environment, especially in the background of the ASEAN’s Free Trade Area (AFTA) agreements signed with several states and organisations.
With the rise of regionalism in all parts of the world, Pakistan’s relations with the ASEAN were raised to a higher multilateral level when the ASEAN agreed to give Pakistan in 1993 the status of a Sectoral Dialogue Partner in eight areas, which was a first turning point for Pakistan and the ASEAN relations. These eight areas were trade, industry, investment, environment, science and technology, tourism, drugs and narcotics and Human Resource Development. Subsequently, three new areas were added because of Pakistan’s suggestion they were information technology, agricultural research and transport and communications.
Pakistan and the ASEAN partnership was formalized with the establishment of the ASEAN Pakistan Joint Sectoral Cooperation Committee (APJSCC) through which an institutional network has been established in identifying projects for cooperation and a programme of exchanges between Pakistan and ASEAN. An ASEAN-Islamabad Committee (AIC), comprising the heads of the ASEAN missions in Pakistan, was also set up along with the establishment of the ASEAN-Pakistan Joint Business Council (APJBC).  Pakistan joined the 27- member ARF in 2004 to work with ASEAN countries on peace and security in South East Asia. It signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN in the same year.
Pakistan is attempting to obtain the status of a full dialogue partner of ASEAN. Pakistan is having the support of the majority members of the ASEAN countries for becoming a full dialogue partner, but it could not succeed because of India, which stole a march on Pakistan by becoming a full dialogue partner of the ASEAN in 2014. Pakistan and the ASEAN countries’ relationship are largely based on trade and international political cooperation opportunities between them.
Pakistan and the ASEAN countries support each other at regional and multilateral frameworks such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN Regional Forum, United Nations, Asia Cooperation Dialogue, and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. For instance, on 7th March 2016, Pakistan-Indonesia agreed on setting up a joint mechanism between their countries for holding the political consultation on global and regional issues, to find solutions to the problems and conflicts, particularly confronting the Muslim countries and to remove the negative image of the Muslims, and for countering Islamophobia.
At the multilateral level, the Pakistan and Philippines have supported each other’s candidatures at various international bodies, as well as initiatives and positions on a host of global concerns, including interfaith dialogue and harmony. In 2007, the Philippines and Pakistan co-authored and served as prime movers for the UN General Assembly Resolution on the Promotion of Inter-Religious and Intercultural Dialogue, Understanding, and Cooperation to promote tolerance and understanding across religions, creeds, and cultures.
A joint statement issued on 21 August 2013 during the visit of Thailand’s Prime Minister Ms Yingluck Shinawatra to Pakistan, in which Thailand supports Pakistan’s candidature for full dialogue partnership, whereas Pakistan will support Thailand’s bid for a position in the OIC.  Besides, the two will also support each other’s candidatures in the UN Human Rights Council.
Vietnam’s support for Pakistan in 2011 for EU duty waiver for its textile products has also been seen as very critical by Pakistani diplomats. Pakistan supported Vietnam’s accession to the WTO. Vietnam requested Pakistan to recognize Vietnam as an open market economy and Pakistan granted that status accordingly.
Since Pakistan has signed only Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Malaysia and Indonesia out of the ten ASEAN countries. Therefore, Pakistan’s trade and economic relations with ASEAN countries need to reach a level of maturity and involvement where full-partnership or the idea of the FTA becomes attractive and compelling. However, trade and investment between the two parties are expanding.
In 2009, ASEAN and Pakistan have undertaken a Joint Feasibility Study for an ASEAN-Pakistan Free Trade Agreement to enhance and expand the overall ASEAN-Pakistan economic engagement. Pakistan’s trade with the ASEAN countries stood at around US$ 2.2 billion in 2004. By 2016, Pakistan’s trade with the bloc tripled to US$ 6.3 billion, with US$ 792 million being Pakistan’s exports and US$ 5.5 billion of Pakistan’s imports. As far as attracting investment from ASEAN is concerned, Pakistan attracted only US$ 81 million from ASEAN countries in 2014. Trade, however, remained imbalanced, which is heavily in favour of the ASEAN countries.
Admittedly the figures are not all that impressive, but the opportunities to increase trading interaction are real. The trade imbalance can be reduced by greater private sector interaction and exchange of information through workshops and Business Council meetings. Pakistan needs to improve its international competitiveness through productivity improvement, which must include improving and standardizing the quality of Pakistani products. The burden of taxes on local products, which makes the products costly in the global market as compared to the other countries products, has to be reduced. Pakistan needs to have comprehensive economic agreements covering trade in goods, services, and investment with all the ASEAN countries.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.