ASEAN forges stronger trade links with major partners

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Australia launched on Saturday a business chamber dedicated for ASEAN concerns.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 9) — Southeast Asian nations are gaining headway in boosting trade with partners keen on tapping the potential of one of the world's fastest growing regions.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is holding dialogues with major trade partners this week as part of the ASEAN Economic Ministers' Meeting and Related Meetings.

Consultations with Hong Kong on Saturday marked the conclusion of negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA).

The FTA will be signed in November during the ASEAN Summit. It will be the first FTA that ASEAN completed in eight years, Trade Undersecretary Ceferino Rodolfo said in a press briefing.

Rodolfo, who heads the Philippine delegation to the ASEAN meetings, said the deal will benefit Filipino exporters. Hong Kong is their third largest market, with exports valued at $6.6 billion in 2016.

"Likewise, those who have not yet set their foothold in Hong Kong, this would mean new expansion opportunities," he said.

ASEAN officials also had fruitful discussions with Canada on Friday. A preliminary study on a possible ASEAN-Canada FTA showed "positive results," Rodolfo said.

Both sides will conduct a joint feasibility study and launch exploratory talks on the trade deal.

This will benefit the Philippines, which has been vying for an FTA with Canada since 2015. Rodolfo noted that given "resource constraints," Canada would likely prioritize negotiating with ASEAN as a bloc instead of dealing with individual member countries.

While a bilateral deal would mean provisions would be more tailored to Philippine needs, Rodolfo said this had to be balanced with the "potential" of completing an agreement.

ASEAN is Canada's sixth largest trading partner, with two-way trade worth $18 billion a year.

Australia launches ASEAN chamber

Meanwhile, Australia launched on Saturday a business chamber dedicated for ASEAN concerns.

The Australia-ASEAN Chamber of Commerce (AustCham ASEAN) will be the umbrella organization for Australia's business groups in Southeast Asia.

AustCham ASEAN President Fraser Thompson said the chamber will focus on the region as it moves towards further economic integration by 2025.

"The ASEAN is a real economic force, the sixth largest economy in the world. It's also an incredibly important diplomatic partner to Australia," he said during the launch.

Australian companies struggle to get information about ASEAN, Thompson said. This often stops them from pouring investments into the region.

"Many of board members in Australia have long memories and have not updated those memories about how Southeast Asia has changed. Unfortunately, the memories date back to the Asian financial crisis… What they associate sometimes with Southeast Asia is that it is a high-growth but high-risk region," he said.

This is a misconception the chamber wants to correct. While there are political risks in ASEAN, its macroeconomic fundamentals are strong, Thompson said. He pointed out economic growth in the region is even more stable than that of the United States and the European Union.