It cannot be ‘business as usual’

09 May, 2015
As appeared in TheStar.com.my

THE 26th Asean Summit from April 26 to 27 April trended in the right directions, even if it would be extravagant to describe it as an unqualified success.

What grabbed most attention was the expression, in the chairman’s statement at the end of the summit, of “serious concern” over the situation rucked up by China’s extensive reclamation work in the South China Sea, now suggested in some quarters to be called the South-East Asia Sea rather late in the day.

China’s consternation at the four of 69 paragraphs in the statement which described how China’s reclamation activities have “…..eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability…..” is unsurprising. China has operated on the basis of Asean disinclination to cross it at all. On its disunity over the maritime disputes.

But Asean has showed it can take a stand. With studious words which do not throw the baby out with the bath water. It is important that China recognises this concern is not adversarial and, together with Asean, work out a modus vivendi in the South China Sea based on a binding code of conduct, as promised by all the parties a good 13 years ago. China must not evidence that its increased power over that time has changed its peaceable ways.

This firm and steady stand of Asean’s, when none was expected, is a plus of the 26th Summit. Asean must persist with this unity and pursue a negotiated basis for peaceful development of the South China Sea, with China. It may seem self-evident, but non-regional powers cannot get involved if countries in the region are able to resolve their differences themselves.

Little-noticed against the red flags of the South China Sea situation was the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-Oriented and People-Centred Asean, produced by the 26th Summit. Cynics often dismiss these declarations, but they are not meaningless, as they are a marker, even if aspiration is often a long distance from reality.

However, why make them at all if there is no commitment whatsoever? Why be held to account when there is no need to? Whatever the slow progress to reach that rules-based Asean, with political, economic and social justice, a start must always be made.

However, there must be some demonstrable progress to gain credibility and momentum. Here is where many things can be done in the economic field.

The declaration mentions the need to enhance the position of the SMEs and narrowing the income gaps among member states. So, I would say, do something big and real about it. Support, at the next Summit in November, the establishment of the Asean MSME Growth Bank, as has been proposed by the Asean Business Advisory Council – without even having to put up the money for it but by giving it regulatory space.

Asean leaders will get the credit. Small companies and the “small” people who run them will benefit. Employment – for people – will grow. The MSMEs will become strong.

The declaration also referred to the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda which places people and the planet at the centre of a new era of sustainable development. Therefore, Asean leaders should instruct that some of the new green industries in energy and the environment be identified in the Post-2015 AEC Plan.

Further, reference is made to more engagement with the private sector. It is best that such engagement is better structured going forward, so that there is real partnership between the Asean public and private sector. Proposals such as the embedding of expert private sector industry groups within the Asean secretariat should be approved to realise this good intention.

It is less difficult to achieve the more people-oriented Asean by working through the economy which offers real benefits than the more complex political and social issues mentioned in the declaration – although decent work principles are something that cannot wait too long. It is incumbent therefore that there should be a charter of workers rights, particularly for migrant labour which, as can be seen from recent news reports, are matters of life and death.

Having made the declaration, Asean leaders can be held to account. Where progress can be made, particularly in the economy, they should not prevaricate. Where there are good proposals to implement, it should be done without hesitation.

Simple steps

Many simple steps should be fully implemented this year, such as having Asean lanes at points of entry, Asean cafes and food stalls, the Asean young entrepreneurs association, the women entrepreneurs association, internship programmes and many other “low-hanging fruits”.

The Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-Oriented and People-Centred Asean is significant. But it must not fall on its sword by not moving ahead, in the equally significant 2015, with action that can be taken to give it immediate real meaning, particularly in the economic field.

Actually, the AEC offers the peoples of Asean the best start and opportunity to participate in the shaping of their future, more so than under the political-security and socio-cultural pillars which are complicated by diverse systems of government.

Back to the chairman’s statement of 27th April, it is as usual gentle, general and generous. Despite its comprehensiveness, this is where the danger lies – especially with respect to promulgation of an AEC at the end of the year.

It is too complacent when it records a 90.5% achievement, 458 out of 506 of the blueprint programmes having been achieved. This counting of matchsticks, as we know, is a gross overstatement as there are so many non-tariff barriers and measures (NTBs and NTMs) which nullify the count.

The statement does talk about the NTMs and NTBs, and welcomed the resuscitation of the Asean Trade Facilitation Joint Consultative Committee (ATF-JCC) to address them – and the officials have swung into action on this one (more meetings!) – but it would have been more of a reality check if the leaders had linked programme achievement with the need to actualise them i.e. a programme to remove the barriers.

Actually, it is one of Malaysia’s deliverables as chair to achieve a trade facilitation agreement before the year is out. It now looks unlikely to happen.

Too reliant

The leaders are too reliant on the officials. They should hand out more specific instructions if they are serious about making the AEC more robust than it will be at the end of 2015. It cannot be “business as usual”. At least they should ensure that private sector involvement in the process from now until the end of the year and on the post-2015 AEC is structured and real.

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.