The Philippines, ASEAN, and regional stability
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.