The Philip­pines, ASEAN, and re­gional sta­bil­ity

Manila Bulletin - - Views • Features - By JEJOMAR C. BINAY For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent jcbi­

MANILA is host­ing this week the 31st Sum­mit of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (ASEAN) with the theme “Part­ner­ing for Change, En­gag­ing the World.” Aside from the heads of the Asean mem­ber-states, world lead­ers from ASEAN’s part­ners – Aus­tralia, Canada, China, Euro­pean Union, In­dia, Ja­pan, New Zealand, Rus­sia, South Korea and the United States – are in at­ten­dance.

The ASEAN Sum­mit in Manila is be­ing held in the midst of a ma­jor shift in eco­nomic power from the At­lantic to Asia. It is now an ac­cepted fact that the 21st cen­tury is des­tined to be the Asian cen­tury, and more wealth will be cre­ated in our part of the world than any­where else. This wealth will not be cre­ated in China or In­dia alone. ASEAN will have an im­por­tant share in it, es­pe­cially if the mem­ber-states work to­gether as part­ners and not com­peti­tors. It makes sense for ASEAN economies to try to grow si­mul­ta­ne­ously to­gether. ASEAN has al­ready taken pos­i­tive steps in that di­rec­tion.

The spirit of co­op­er­a­tion is in pur­suit of ASEAN’s goal as ar­tic­u­lated in the Dec­la­ra­tion of the ASEAN eco­nomic Com­mu­nity Blueprint of 2007: “To achieve higher lev­els of eco­nomic dy­namism, sus­tained pros­per­ity, in­clu­sive growth and in­te­grated de­vel­op­ment of ASEAN.”

These are in­deed ex­cit­ing times for ASEAN. But there are also chal­lenges ahead.

We can­not deny that ASEAN economies are at dif­fer­ent lev­els of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. The re­al­ity is that emerg­ing economies like ASEAN have a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion liv­ing be­low the poverty thresh­old. In the Philip­pines, one-fourth of our pop­u­la­tion is considered poor. About half of ASEAN has about the same poverty ra­tios as ours.

In­clu­sive growth mat­ters most to the poor peo­ple of ASEAN. They stand to be­come poorer if they have no ac­cess to ba­sic op­por­tu­ni­ties that mid­dle and high-in­come earn­ers take for granted, like ef­fi­cient trans­porta­tion, ed­u­ca­tion or health care. To the poor, these are life­lines that help them im­prove their lives.

Of the goals of ASEAN eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion, in­clu­sive growth is, to me, the most im­por­tant.

Growth is mean­ing­less if it does not re­dound to the good of every­one, or at least, to the greater num­ber. In the same vein, in­te­gra­tion would be mean­ing­less if it can only make the rich richer and not up­lift the lives of the ma­jor­ity. In­clu­sive growth should be the over­rid­ing goal of ASEAN.

Both ASEAN and in­di­vid­ual mem­ber-states have shown over the years that mul­ti­lat­eral and bi­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion can lead to sub­stan­tial gains in com­bat­ing shared con­cerns like il­le­gal drugs, hu­man traf­fick­ing and ter­ror­ism. I am op­ti­mistic that the “ASEAN Way” will help ad­vance in­clu­sive growth in the re­gion.

Nonethe­less, ASEAN’s over­rid­ing con­cern at the mo­ment is to en­sure peace and se­cu­rity in the re­gion. This is de­fined for now by some re­cent prob­lems that have arisen in the West Philippine Sea and the alarm­ing in­cur­sions of Is­lamic ex­trem­ists in Min­danao.

The Philip­pines and sev­eral ASEAN mem­ber-states have taken stronger, more ag­gres­sive ac­tions against ISIS and ISIS-af­fil­i­ated groups. Joint ef­forts on sev­eral fronts – from in­tel­li­gence shar­ing to eco­nomic up­lift­ment – are in­dis­pens­able in the fight against these ex­trem­ists who ex­ploit both re­li­gious and so­cial con­di­tions to spread their agenda of ter­ror in the re­gion.

In the West Philippine Sea dis­pute, I feel that a broad re­gional ap­proach is needed to en­sure per­ma­nent tran­quil­ity and sta­bil­ity of our in­ter­na­tional sea lanes. Yet we have to ad­mit that at the mo­ment, the Philip­pines and China stand at the core of the con­tro­versy.

The re­la­tions be­tween China and the Philip­pines started in the early part of the first cen­tury, long be­fore the ar­rival of the first Span­ish col­o­niz­ers. This re­la­tion­ship was care­fully nur­tured by our fore­fa­thers and it has blos­somed into mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial ties in cul­ture, trade, and the in­ter­mar­riage of our peo­ple. Today, among all coun­tries in the world, the Philip­pines has signed the most num­ber of trade, eco­nomic, cul­tural, sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal agree­ments with China.

And while diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween the Philip­pines and China was for­mally es­tab­lished al­most 40 years ago, the bond be­tween the two coun­tries go way back and has re­mained solid de­spite the on­go­ing dis­pute. When I was Vice Pres­i­dent, I had an in­ter­est­ing talk with a Chi­nese diplo­mat who aptly de­scribed the is­sues fac­ing our two coun­tries. The diplo­mat said while at the on­set the sit­u­a­tion can be per­ceived as dif­fi­cult, the friend­ship and fam­ily ties be­tween our two coun­tries will en­dure. China’s re­cent state­ment, as re­ported in me­dia, ex­press­ing open­ness to dia­log and pledg­ing to pro­mote peace and sta­bil­ity in the re­gion should be seen as a step for­ward in mend­ing these dif­fi­cul­ties.

I be­lieve we can re­solve the is­sues through dia­log and co­op­er­a­tion, fos­ter­ing our re­la­tion­ship with them as our neigh­bor in growth and de­vel­op­ment, and pro­mot­ing joint de­vel­op­ment, co­op­er­a­tion and mu­tual ben­e­fit.

Let me re­peat what I said when I was Vice Pres­i­dent: Sovereignty is non-ne­go­tiable. The Philip­pines should pro­tect our in­ter­est in the West Philippine Sea and all other lands within our ter­ri­tory. But this does not pre­clude us from hav­ing stronger bi­lat­eral re­la­tions with China, par­tic­u­larly in trade and com­merce. We should deal with China, as well as our long-stand­ing part­ners Ja­pan the United States, with an at­ti­tude of en­gage­ment and amity, not en­mity.

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