ASEAN AT A CROSS­ROADS

As the re­gional group­ing goes into its sixth decade, it will re­quire bet­ter co­op­er­a­tion to man­age the move­ment of peo­ple, threats

New Straits Times - - Opinion -

ASEAN has en­joyed a rel­a­tively suc­cess­ful and pros­per­ous first 50 years. A key mile­stone is the es­tab­lish­ment of the Asean Free Trade Area, which laid the foun­da­tion for the Asean Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity (AEC), one of the three pil­lars of the Asean Com­mu­nity.

The time is now to chart a roadmap of key is­sues of re­gional im­por­tance for the next five decades. To en­sure con­tin­ued suc­cess, the re­gional group­ing needs to fur­ther con­sol­i­date eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion, cap­i­talise on favourable de­mo­graphic fac­tors and chan­nel to­day’s tech-savvy youth to har­ness the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion.

Against the back­drop of grow­ing anti-glob­al­i­sa­tion and pro­tec­tion­ist sen­ti­ments across the world and an un­pre­dictable Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in the United States, it has be­come im­per­a­tive to main­tain eco­nomic growth for con­tin­ued sta­bil­ity and pros­per­ity in the re­gion.

As such, in­tra-Asean ini­tia­tives like the AEC as well as re­gional ini­tia­tives, such as the Re­gional Com­pre­hen­sive Eco­nomic Part­ner­ship (RCEP), will be the cor­ner­stone in mak­ing Asean the bul­wark of an out­ward-look­ing South­east Asia, cham­pi­oning trade lib­er­al­i­sa­tion and en­gag­ing the rest of the world.

The suc­cess­ful com­ple­tion of RCEP will link Asean, a mar­ket of 630 mil­lion peo­ple, to its six part­ner coun­tries — China, Ja­pan, South Korea, In­dia, Aus­tralia and New Zealand — cre­at­ing a big­ger mar­ket of 3.5 bil­lion peo­ple.

In re­cent years, Asean has been grow­ing by around five per cent a year, ush­er­ing the rise of a huge mid­dle class. The Asian Devel­op­ment Bank es­ti­mated that by 2030, nearly half a bil­lion of Asean pop­u­la­tion will be clas­si­fied as mid­dle in­come. Asean can per­form bet­ter, with a po­ten­tial growth rate of seven per cent, if mem­ber states align their in­ter­ests with the Asean com­mu­nity agenda. At the start of last year, Asean was the sev­enth largest econ­omy in the world. At the be­gin­ning of this year, that rank im­proved to sixth, and by 2020 it is pre­dicted to be fifth.

Asean en­joys a de­mo­graphic sweet spot and gov­ern­ments of mem­ber states must take the right mea­sures, such as re­struc­tur­ing the ed­u­ca­tional cur­ricu­lum to en­sure the youth are bet­ter pre­pared to take on jobs of the fu­ture, be­fore the pop­u­la­tion starts to age by 2025. The 630 mil­lion cit­i­zens of Asean are very young (al­though Sin­ga­pore and Thai­land are age­ing).

As the work­ing-age pop­u­la­tion grows in num­ber, it will not only boost the re­gion’s spend­ing, but also in­crease its sav­ings and, hence, its ca­pac­ity to in­vest. In­vest­ment should be made in hu­man cap­i­tal. To main­tain dy­namic growth, we can­not rely on nat­u­ral re­sources and un­skilled labour but have to aim for sus­tain­able devel­op­ment and eq­ui­table growth, through in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity and in­no­va­tion, to move up the value chain.

Asean’s rapidly grow­ing econ­omy and pop­u­la­tion needs to be ac­com­pa­nied by a strong strat­egy for sus­tain­able devel­op­ment. The re­gion is fac­ing a myr­iad of trans­bound­ary en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues such as haze, wa­ter and land pol­lu­tion, along with dwin­dling for­est cover.

How­ever, Asean’s bal­anc­ing act be­tween en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity and eco­nomic devel­op­ment will be made more chal­leng­ing be­cause of re­gion-wide so­cial in­equities as mem­ber states are in vary­ing stages of devel­op­ment, and the grow­ing mid­dle class only adds to the in­creas­ing con­sump­tion of re­sources and de-gen­er­a­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment and bio­di­ver­sity.

As Asean goes into its sixth decade, the world stands on the cusp of a dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, driven by tech­nolo­gies, such as ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, ma­chine learn­ing, au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, ubiq­ui­tous mo­bile In­ter­net and ac­cel­er­at­ing progress in ge­net­ics, ma­te­ri­als science and ul­tra-cheap au­to­ma­tion. Asean has the po­ten­tial to en­ter the top five dig­i­tal economies in the world by 2025.

More­over, im­ple­men­ta­tion of a rad­i­cal dig­i­tal agenda could add US$1 tril­lion (RM4.2 tril­lion) to the re­gion’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP) over the next 10 years. With a large and youth­ful pop­u­la­tion in­creas­ingly equipped with smart­phones, Asean has an op­por­tu­nity to pi­o­neer the devel­op­ment of new dig­i­tal ser­vices, es­pe­cially ad­vanced mo­bile fi­nan­cial ser­vices and e-com­merce.

A re­cent re­port from Google cal­cu­lates that the re­gion’s on­line pop­u­la­tion is ex­pand­ing by 124,000 new users ev­ery day — and will con­tinue at this pace for the next five years.

With the dig­i­tal econ­omy comes tough ques­tions about ways to nav­i­gate the ac­cel­er­at­ing pace of tech­no­log­i­cal change and dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion. In terms of job creation, we have to en­sure that the Asean pop­u­la­tion is equipped with the right skills.

To this end, there is an ur­gent need to up­date ed­u­ca­tional cur­ricu­lum, re­train teach­ers, bring com­puter and In­ter­net not only to ru­ral ar­eas but also to ur­ban lower mid­dle class and be­low for more dig­i­tal in­clu­sion.

The dy­namic move­ment of peo­ple in Asean will also at­tract in­creased drug and hu­man traf­fick­ing, and other kinds of transna­tional crime will rise. Look­ing ahead, Asean se­cu­rity and po­lice author­i­ties will re­quire a stronger frame­work of co­op­er­a­tion in man­ag­ing the con­se­quences of this move­ment of peo­ple.

What are the ap­pli­ca­ble le­gal regimes? We do not have them yet. Mem­ber states are still caught up with ar­gu­ing about sovereignty is­sues. The prob­lem is get­ting acute. Ex­trem­ism and ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties need to be checked and threats erad­i­cated. This re­quires cross-bor­der co­op­er­a­tion

and ef­fec­tive le­gal mea­sures. Con­sid­er­ing the ge­og­ra­phy of the re­gion and the fact that we are now equipped with in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated tech­nol­ogy, only a con­certed Asean agenda will pre­vent the group­ing from im­plod­ing in the next 50 years.

Apart from th­ese in­ter­nal chal­lenges, there are the geopol­i­tics and pre­vail­ing strate­gic and se­cu­rity cir­cum­stances as well. Asean’s di­ver­sity, cul­ture, his­tory and so­ci­ety is leg­endary. Go­ing for­ward, how the mem­ber states man­age ex­ter­nal re­la­tions will de­cide its en­dur­ing qual­i­ties and ef­fec­tive­ness. Will it be a re­gion­al­ism re­volv­ing around a risen China or hark­ing back to the prin­ci­ples un­der­ly­ing Asean’s Zop­fan (Zone of Peace, Free­dom and Neu­tral­ity) ini­tia­tive of the 1970s? Or could it be an ori­en­ta­tion to pre­serve the in­ter­na­tional order as we know it to­day with Asean able to play a bal­anc­ing role?

Asean is not per­fect. Com­mu­nity-build­ing is a learn­ing process. There is no al­ter­na­tive to this in­ter-gov­ern­men­tal re­gional group­ing to en­able the South­east Asian na­tions to en­gage ex­ter­nal pow­ers and states be­yond the im­me­di­ate neigh­bour­hood. We need to ac­cel­er­ate Asean’s vi­sion­ary plans to re­alise an open, in­clu­sive and peace­ful re­gion to se­cure its fu­ture.

The writer is ex­ec­u­tive deputy chair­man of the S. Ra­jarat­nam School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies (RSIS), Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Univer­sity, Sin­ga­pore. He was Asean sec­re­tary­gen­eral from Jan­uary 2003 to Jan­uary 2008

How­ever, Asean’s bal­anc­ing act be­tween en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity and eco­nomic devel­op­ment will be made more chal­leng­ing be­cause of re­gion­wide so­cial in­equities as mem­ber states are in vary­ing stages of devel­op­ment...

EPA PIC

In re­cent years, Asean has grown by around five per cent a year, ush­er­ing the rise of a huge mid­dle class.

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