First year of the Asean Community
As appeared in TheStar.com.my
AT the start of every new year, there usually will be reflection on the last one just gone by, to learn from and build on it, and to resolve to do better.
In the past year, the Asean community has been pronounced. But there are detractors. Does it really exist? What exists?
There are national preoccupations that take priority. In four Asean member states there will be new or realigned political leadership. Political challenges are faced by all Asean countries, in different shades of the existential.
At different levels of threat, there are economic headwinds caused by depressed commodity prices, slower growth in China and increasing interest rates. While the Asean economic community has been pronounced, with all the potential of a single economy, each member state faces its particular challenges on its own to avoid social stresses and political consequences.
So what difference does the Asean community make?
The first thing to remember is that Asean does not displace the individual nation-state. Each member state has chosen not to subsume any part of its sovereignty to a larger Asean institution or entity. Certainly in respect of internal affairs the principle of non-interference is sacrosanct. Therefore it would be misplaced to expect Asean to make a direct difference in the solution of the many challenges its members states will face in 2016.
However, all these problems could become more numerous and complicated if there was no Asean. For example, Asean cooperation makes it more difficult for terrorist groups to conduct their acts of violence within or outside individual countries. Clearly, abetment of internal insurrection has pretty well been absent as Asean grew and became member states seeking to be a community for peace, development and prosperity.
It is also often contended that if there was no Asean, the level of non-regional foreign interference would be so great as to divide South-East Asian states, even set them at loggerheads with one another.
This point is salient when we consider the situation in the South China Sea where four Asean states have territorial claims together with China (and Taiwan). How this matter is resolved – and with what level of extra-regional involvement – is something that affects the whole region and not just those four countries.
That is why the South China Sea disputes have become the touchstone of the contention Asean keeps disturbing outside interlopers out and the region together. In 2016 – if there is to be any belief in the Asean political community – the absolute minimum must be the conclusion of the binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, as presaged in the Declaration of Conduct with China in 2002.
However, if China continues with establishing the series of fair accompli through reclamation and other works while dragging its feet on the code of conduct, there has to be an Asean Plan B in 2016 on the involvement of the United States in the South China Sea disputes. That conversation some individual Asean states – like Singapore – have already had but has to be developed at the group level when Asean holds its summit with the Americans in California on Feb 15-16. (And not just for everyone to spend the time checking on progress of the Star Wars Theme Park in Disneyland).
Asean now has a strategic partnership with the United States. It has to work out in 2016 what this means. It has also, more immediately, to have that Plan B clear in the head. Otherwise we can look forward to a messy US-China struggle and the end of stability in the region which the Asean community is supposed to preserve.
Asean foreign ministries need to get moving in 2016 not only because of the deteriorating situation in the South China Sea. There is also the real danger of deep division being exposed this year under Lao PDR chairmanship which might be overly influenced by China – and then have the division accentuated when the Philippines takes the chair in 2017.
That Asean nightmare must be avoided. The community will crack before it is fully formed.
If protected what is promised will begin to be experienced, even if not to the fullest extent. However there is work to be done in the first year of the Asean community to give an experience of being Asean to the common man. Many now laud the existence of Asean lanes at airports. It will not be a giant leap this year to make them available at ALL points of international entry in ALL Asean countries.
There are many other simple steps that should be taken in 2016 to give that Asean experience to the common man. It does not take much to have the Asean Business Travel Card given that there is already the Apec Business Travel Card among six Asean members states in Apec. Issue a supplementary card? Call it Asean instead of Apec? Anyone got a handle on this?
There are a few other simple propositions which I have enumerated ad nauseam in these columns. A good start to 2016 is to get cracking on them: Asean food stalls, cafes, boutiques, internships. Who has been put in charge to drive these things? It would not be a sovereignty-threatening move.
We are here talking about very simple measures in the context of the people-centred and people-oriented Asean community, made much of in its pronouncement and in Vision 2025. We are not even approaching issues such as greater protection of human rights and better governance which, realistically, would not be something to be expected in 2016, or at the near end of the Asean community.
But let me reflect finally on the Asean Economic Community (AEC) which has received the most attention among the three community pillars. AEC Vision 2025, as with the other pillars, sets another marker, but it should not be used as another date that pushes out the moment of truth.
Former Indonesian Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, when speaking at the Asean Business and Investment Summit in November, related how when he first attended the Asean Economic Ministers Meeting (AEM) he had asked if having the AEC in 2015 meant at its start, in the middle of the year or at its end. Everyone sheepishly finally settled on Dec 31, 2015.
This instinct, to push out, and then to rush towards a minimalist end, is Asean. Apologists say this is the way Asean does not break up. But this is the way also Asean could crack up. Like against urgent issues such as the South China Sea disputes. Like with a young Asean population that is less patient and more enjoined with one another through social media as well as fast information flows.
Asean cannot continue to always push dates out and work like mad at the end of a period. Vision 2025 therefore must start in 2016. What was not achieved at the end of 2015 must be addressed at the start of 2016, not towards the end of 2025.
The AEC Vision 2025 talks about the non-tariff barriers (NTBs) that remain. Asean Economic ministers committed to the Asean Business Advisory Council (Asean-BAC) that there will be a concentration on at least four sectors to remove the significant NTBs. This is supposed to be achieved in 2016. Let the work begin.
The role of the private sector is also supposed to be enhanced to drive the AEC integration process. This also has to be worked out at the start of 2016, including the strengthening of Asean-BAC and the involvement of well-resourced Asean and non-Asean business organisations.
As the dust settled at the end of the 27th Asean summit this recent last year, it felt rather like everyone packing up at the end of the school year, and then going away. There usually is a hang-over and a lot of scratching about as the new year starts. In Asean’s case, it should not be allowed to be as the new ten years start.
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.