Re­gional in­te­gra­tion

The Philippine Star - - BUSINESS - Boo Chanco’s e-mail ad­dress is bchanco@gmail.com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @boochanco. BOO CHANCO

I saw ASEAN be­ing born. Ac­tu­ally, it wasn’t even ASEAN, but ASA or the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asia. I watched from the win­dow of my class­room at UP in Padre Faura as dig­ni­taries drove up what was then the Depart­ment of For­eign Af­fairs, now the Supreme Court.

I was in high school at that time and I was fas­ci­nated with what was hap­pen­ing next door. ASA was then com­posed of the Fed­er­a­tion of Malaya, Thai­land and us. Soon, there were more high level meet­ings at the DFA when Maphilindo was born. That’s the group­ing com­posed of Malaysia, the Philip­pines and In­done­sia.

Maphilindo was es­sen­tially a Malay-based group­ing. If it worked, it would have ful­filled a dream of Dr Jose Rizal for all the Malays to re­dis­cover their pre-colo­nial roots… It was not to be.

In­deed Maphilindo was short­lived. The an­i­mosi­ties rooted in our colo­nial past were too pow­er­ful to over­come. In­done­sia’s Sukarno adopted a pol­icy of kon­frontasi against the newly formed Malaysia. We had our claim on Sabah, a ter­ri­tory the Bri­tish turned over to Malaysia.

ASEAN was formed in 1967, ex­pand­ing be­yond the Malay part of South­east Asia to in­clude Thai­land, Sin­ga­pore, and even­tu­ally what was then known as In­doChina. It was ini­tially a largely anti com­mu­nist group­ing that re­sponded to the fear that one coun­try af­ter an­other will fall to the com­mu­nists, or the so called domino the­ory.

ASEAN proved to be a rather be­nign as­so­ci­a­tion of na­tions, seem­ingly de­voted to the il­lu­sion of re­gional unity and the pri­macy of its lav­ish an­nual sum­mit meet­ings. ASEAN mem­bers walked on eggshells to avoid the real tough is­sues that mat­ter as it fol­lowed a pol­icy of non in­ter­fer­ence in each other’s do­mes­tic af­fairs.

In­deed, ASEAN was al­most killed a year af­ter its for­ma­tion when we re­newed our claim to Sabah and mu­tual dis­trust rekin­dled. It took the com­mu­nist vic­to­ries in In­doChina to get the ASEAN lead­ers to take the ASEAN idea a step fur­ther by sign­ing a treaty of amity and co­op­er­a­tion in a sum­mit meet­ing in Bali. They pledged to “re­frain from the threat or use of force… and set­tle dis­putes among them­selves through friendly ne­go­ti­a­tions.”

They adopted the so-called ASEAN Way which is to work by con­sen­sus and turn­ing a blind eye to un­pleas­ant de­vel­op­ments in each other’s ter­ri­tory. ASEAN has since dou­bled in size from five to 10 mem­bers. Its as­pi­ra­tions also got more am­bi­tious, the most sig­nif­i­cant be­ing its goal of in­te­grat­ing their economies along the lines of the European Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity.

By and large, ASEAN has proven to be all talk and lit­tle by way of co­op­er­a­tion where it mat­tered. It had the op­por­tu­nity to put China in its place in the South China Sea dis­putes with some of its mem­bers, but a con­sen­sus to do this never ma­te­ri­al­ized. ASEAN mem­bers are just too di­vided on China to stand up for the rights of its mem­bers.

Now it is prob­a­bly too late for ASEAN to do any­thing about the neigh­bor­hood bully. Many of its mem­bers are too de­pen­dent on China’s eco­nomic and mil­i­tary as­sis­tance for a united ASEAN po­si­tion to put China in its proper place.

Eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion is prov­ing to be elu­sive. ASEAN mem­bers are just too fo­cused on their in­ter­nal prob­lems, too parochial in out­look to re­al­ize that work­ing to­gether will ac­tu­ally help them im­prove their peo­ple’s lives.

In­deed, it is dif­fi­cult to ig­nore ASEAN’s huge mar­ket of $2.6 tril­lion and over 622 mil­lion peo­ple. ASEAN lead­ers should learn to lever­age their grow­ing im­por­tance among its so-called di­a­logue part­ners. But ASEAN must come to­gether and show a united front to the rest of the world.

ASEAN had been mak­ing noises about re­gional eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion as the way for­ward. It has pro­duced a num­ber of acronyms to show its in­ten­tions.

For ex­am­ple: ASEAN eco­nomic com­mu­nity (AEC) by 2025, a pan-Asia free trade or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Re­gional Com­pre­hen­sive Eco­nomic Part­ner­ship (RCEP). Then there are the re­gional ini­tia­tives from the se­cu­rity-ori­ented ASEAN Re­gional Fo­rum (ARF) to the Chi­ang Mai Ini­tia­tive (CMI) cur­rency swap ar­range­ment. ASEAN has an al­pha­bet soup of good in­ten­tions.

But the re­al­ity on the ground is that eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion is be­hind sched­ule. It has aban­doned the 2015 AEC tar­get orig­i­nally set in 2007 and it is now set for 2025.

The av­er­age tar­iffs on goods may have dropped, but the num­ber of non-tar­iff mea­sures (NTM) to limit im­ports in key sec­tors in­creased three­fold. Cross-bor­der move­ment of la­bor, in­clud­ing pro­fes­sion­als, has not been eased.

Co­op­er­a­tion on re­gional se­cu­rity is iffy. ASEAN’s code of con­duct for ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes in the South China Sea has been on the ta­ble since the early 2000s. It is doubt­ful ASEAN can progress on this is­sue. ASEAN also ig­nores con­tro­ver­sies such as the Ro­hingya cri­sis in Myan­mar’s north­ern Rakhine state.

Mov­ing for­ward, ASEAN lead­ers will buckle un­der the pres­sure of re-emerg­ing na­tion­al­ism and pop­ulism in their do­mes­tic pol­i­tics. ASEAN lead­ers have sup­ported free trade in the past, but may re­con­sider given the back­lash against glob­al­iza­tion.

China’s rise will di­vide ASEAN and China is cap­i­tal­iz­ing on this di­vi­sion. Am­bas­sador Rodolfo Sev­erino, who was ASEAN sec­re­tary-gen­eral once, com­mented with re­gard to China: “I don’t think you can get ASEAN to agree to any­thing, be­cause each coun­try has a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on it. It’s all national in­ter­est or what they think are their national in­ter­ests…”

Form rather than sub­stance high­lights the an­nual ASEAN sum­mit meet­ings. Form is a way of pre­tend­ing to be busy, but evad­ing the sub­stan­tive is­sues de­mand­ing at­ten­tion. It is un­likely the sac­ri­fices of Metro Mani­lans shut out of their streets for the ASEAN meet­ing for a week will be worth it.

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