Asean Community in two or three parts

28 November, 2015
As appeared in TheStar.com.my

The region has come a long way and can point to many achievements

ASEAN is an association of states seeking to become a community of nations. There is no surrender of authority or sovereignty to any Asean supranational body. Asean works by consensus. Every member state in the association has to agree before any agreement can be said to have been concluded.

Yet Asean has come a long way and can point to many achievements. Many agreements on greater integration have been concluded. And there have been no major conflicts between or among Asean states since the association’s establishment in 1967 precisely to achieve peace and stability so that there can be economic and social progress.

The absence of war is a good sign of the ethic of cooperation which points to potential formation of community. While there can be debate over how much the existence of Asean contributed to the avoidance of conflict, it cannot be denied meeting regularly and working together towards regional cooperation provide strong incentives towards peaceable rather than conflictual relations.

In the economic sphere there is the Asean Free Trade Area whatever the non-tariff barriers that may be said to exist as indeed, they exist everywhere in the world. While much has been made of the unsatisfactory level of intra-Asean trade, since the AEC 2007 Blueprint it has increased by US$1 trillion, and at US$2.5 trillion the 24% share is well above that of second placed China at 14%.

The single market and production base is well on its way. With size and growth of Asean economies expected to achieve 7% above baseline by 2025 through greater integration, and the reshuffling of manufacturing and services base from economic development, a greater complementarity that is currently not the case will definitely boost intra-Asean trade further.

Just imagine if there was better progress in the flow of investment and capital and of skilled labour as well, Asean would surely be on the way towards becoming that fourth-sized global economy which even now attracts more FDI (foreign direct investment) than China, an 11% share of total global flows, when not too long ago it was the fear that Asean would fall between the two stools of China and India.

Another positive development not often credited, on the socio-cultural side, is the participation of social activists and NGOs in the Asean decision-making process who would otherwise not get the time of day in a number of national jurisdictions.

These groups and activists interact with leaders, ministers and officials at Asean summits – like the one a week ago – and also organise their own events and activities. As the Asean Business Advisory Council chair this past year, I have also been trying to accommodate them at private sector meetings, as there are many issues, such as treatment of migrant labour and responsible business practice, which have a bearing on the economy that need to be thrashed out. They are not political or purely social issues alone.

Of course no one is satisfied. Not the geopolitical strategist, the businessman or the social activist. When you call yourself a community, you raise expectations. You cannot expect to go round telling everyone to be grateful for small mercies. You have promised them big.

Whenever I am asked about the Asean community or the AEC, by local or foreign media representatives, the question is always framed in an skeptical manner. There is a lot of cynicism whatever the leaders and officials say.

Even when the numbers are thrown out, there is suggestion that they would have been attained without Asean integration which is characterised more by what has not than what has been achieved.

Even businessmen who have benefited by what has been achieved complain about all those barriers that remain. So do social activists who are dissatisfied particularly by human rights violations in the region which do not obtain Asean reprimand and by evident inability to work together to address transnational problems such as the smog (euphemistically called the haze).

There is no sense of being Asean, especially among the people the governments are supposed to serve. Simple things that can make them feel Asean have been outstanding for years. As usual, it is felt, it is big business that is getting the lion’s share of the integration attention.

If this distance between what the people feel – or not feel – and the high level integration process continues the Asean community will be nothing but hyperbole.

Simple things must be done. These have been outstanding for such a long time that people wonder if Asean leaders are bothered about them. Make it easier for them to travel. Make them recognise things they have in common such as with food. Teach Asean history. Organise internship programmes for university students and for vocational and technical trainees.

So many have been suggested so many times in so many reports. If by the end of its first year the Asean community does not see these simple things materialising, its future development will be bleak. No point talking about a milestone in a process if the process at the people level does not move.

The 27th Asean summit ended last Sunday with a lofty declaration full of many promises. The Asean 2025 document pushes out much of the unfinished business while being loaded with some highly qualitative objectives for the next 10 years.

If with the quantitative Asean falls short, how will it do with the qualitative?

There was a great sense of urgency running into the end of 2015. Now that’s over, however what has been achieved is felt and perceived, is there going to be a similar drive now that there are 10 years to play with?

Every Asean summit promises something. This last one of course the most. About community. After the song and dance, and the lofty declarations and linking of arms, Asean decamps. Everyone goes home. It feels like the morning after the night before.

But there is so much work to be done. There must be continued drive. Not just Laos, the next chair of Asean. All member states.

Association and community. High level and people-centric. Official and private. Relaxed and delirious.

Developed and much less developed. Politically stable and not so stable. Closer to China and closer to the US.

There are always two parts to Asean. Diversity is a challenge. Convergence does not come of itself. The community must not have a split personality.

Where the differences have been most pointed is with regard to China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea. Asean foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in July 2012, exposing the fissures in the association on the matter. What will happen in 2016 when Laos takes the chair?

The most work has to be done where the greatest differences exist. The South China Sea is one such area. The foreign ministries have to work to fashion what can be a common position, and not just rush in and out of negotiations. Who is taking the lead, many people wonder.

So much work remains to be done. So many differences remain among member states.

Without drive and leadership Asean will not get anywhere just because the Asean community has been inaugurated. Asean can have no morning after the night before.

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.