New Leaders Forum

ASEAN in the Asian Century

If ASEAN countries want to share in the fruits of the Asian Century they need to do more to integrate.

The term ‘Asian Century’ is frequently used these days to describe the re-emergence of Asia as the world’s epicentre of political, economic and socio-cultural activities. Comparable to the Europeans emerging out of the Dark Ages, ‘Asians are rediscovering their own past and deriving inspiration from it for the future,’ as George Yeo, a well-respected former foreign minister of Singapore, described it. But what is ‘Asia’ in this case? Does the ‘Asian Century’ include small and middle income countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations? And what does ASEAN have to do to keep riding with the rising tigers of Asia?

There are a few steps I would recommend:

Form a Single Market

In 2003, ASEAN leaders announced their intention to form the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which would be an integrated regional market for the 10 ASEAN member states. In layman’s terms, AEC would enable, for example, Indonesian firms to do business in Thailand on a level playing field with Thai firms; Cambodian dentists to find work in Singapore upon passing a license exam; Chinese and American electronic goods having to meet a single ASEAN safety standard instead of ten different ones; foreign tourists using a single visa to travel to all ten ASEAN countries; among others.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Originally planned for 2020, the goal of establishing the AEC was in 2007 accelerated to 2015. The idea behind AEC derived from recognizing that ten individual countries would have more economic bargaining power on the world stage if they were to form a single market and production base. As the rest of Asia is becoming more attractive for investment and economic opportunities, ASEAN believes it has to transform itself with the free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labour, and freer flow of capital to compete with economic juggernauts in the region, namely, China, India and South Korea.

But can the AEC be achieved by 2015? Meeting this ambitious goal is a key determinant for ASEAN of whether it will be able to share the fruits of the Asian Century with other more powerful nations. Progress towards this goal has been satisfactory, but a lot more has to be done.  For example, currently only 25 percent (about $500 billion) of ASEAN’s total trade is internal and among member nations.  In contrast, the 27 members of the European Union trade 68 percent among themselves. Within the next few years, ASEAN will need to bring its intra-regional trade share to at least 40 percent, a figure officials believe would serve as a foundation for AEC.

It also appears that there’s a communication gap between leaders and bureaucrats in each country who are implementing policies designed to build AEC. The rhetoric from the leaders of ASEAN member states has been forward-looking and sincere, but that vision isn’t always shared by working level officials. Integration means there has to be a restructuring of the bureaucracy or a dilution of authority. The unwillingness of the bureaucratic system to follow the regional vision for fear of change has led to the slow implementation of AEC-oriented policies. As such, it’s incumbent upon the leaders and high-level officials who understand the shared vision of ASEAN to communicate the message to working level staff.  Officials must first believe in AEC before the people will be convinced.

Establish an ASEAN Defence Force

Another requirement for a successful future of ASEAN is the establishment of an ASEAN defence force. To remain a credible bloc, and to contend with other major Asian powers during the ‘Asian Renaissance,’ ASEAN must eventually maintain a NATO-style collective force that is robust in capabilities and sufficiently large for self-protection and deterrence.  To achieve this, the 10 countries of ASEAN should agree to pull together their military resources and share responsibility for protecting the bloc from external threats. An ASEAN force could go beyond dealing with challenges from the outside, and tackle internal rifts and disaster relief operations when necessary.

The current tensions in the South China Sea are an external threat that should be a catalyst for ASEAN to start talking about a collective defence mechanism. The conflict between Thailand and Cambodia also provides an opportunity for such a force – consisting of troops from 10 member countries stripped of their respective national military uniform, and instead sporting an ASEAN badge – to be deployed in the region for peacekeeping purposes. Frequent natural calamities in the region would be more effectively responded to if ASEAN member states were to assist each other by pulling their military resources together.

ASEAN countries should, then, support the idea originally proposed by Malaysia to form a defence industrial base in the region. Similar to the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS) for Europe, the business model in pursuing an increased production capability in aerospace and defence equipment for Southeast Asia would enhance regional competitiveness both militarily and economically. ASEAN countries have various levels of industrial and technological capabilities. Some are better at manufacturing aerospace equipment, while others specialize in weapons, automotive or naval sectors. As such, as a Malaysian minister of defence once put it, ‘the ASEAN countries have different strengths and opportunities that could be integrated toward developing a more concerted, regionally-based defence industrial growth with the aim of reducing the over dependence on imports, and at the same time, sustaining economic development within the region in terms of research and development, jobs and outflow of currency.’

Create an ASEAN Identity

On the socio-cultural front, ASEAN needs to collectively build an identity that’s identifiable by its own citizens and foreigners. It’s not enough for ASEAN member states to be, or try to be, integrated on economic and security terms while their people remain unconnected and divided without a sense of belonging in their own regional community. The momentum for integration and cooperation would be much greater if ASEAN citizens understood and were fully onboard with the vision laid down by their leaders.

It’s true that efforts have been made to build such an identity, but certainly much more commitment is needed from each government. For example, from August this year, when ASEAN celebrated its 44th anniversary, leaders have agreed to begin raising ASEAN flags alongside national flags at embassies and foreign missions worldwide. They have also agreed to integrate lessons on ASEAN into school curriculums to prepare the students prior to the establishment of the AEC. This has already been implemented in various degrees among the member states, but the initiative must be accelerated for citizens to maximize the benefits of the AEC when it comes into effect.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

During the aftermath of the Cyclone Nargis in Burma a few years ago, ASEAN established a programme called ‘ASEAN Volunteers’ that brought volunteers from the member states together to engage in relief operations in order to show solidarity with the affected nation. A similar model of assistance can and should be erected following future large-scale natural disasters. ASEAN recently sent a youth caravan comprised of young leaders from ten nations to visit tsunami-devastated Sendai in Japan as a sign of goodwill and also to project an image of ASEAN’s unity, not only to Japan, but to ASEAN’s own citizens as well.

Certainly, a herculean initiative to build the ASEAN brand is being pursued by the ASEAN leadership. In 2030, ASEAN aims to host the Soccer World Cup. According to a senior ASEAN official, the decision to bid to be host is among the most significant collective decisions by the leaders of ASEAN that will accelerate the economic, social and cultural development and integration of ASEAN as a community. This is a novel way to give real life to ASEAN’s motto: ‘One Vision, One Identity, One Community.’

Such initiatives to build the ASEAN identity must continue and be accelerated for ASEAN to have any chance of sustaining and increasing its global role and influential position in Asia. It’s impossible to imagine a successful AEC if the leaders of ASEAN convey a message that ASEAN is a single community of nations, but the citizens don’t actually feel that way.

Ultimately, ASEAN is on the right trajectory toward enjoying an incredible and prosperous future in the ‘Asian Century.’ But to cement its position and increase its appeal within Asia and on the world stage, there are many issues it must address in the economic, politico-security and socio-cultural spheres. Competition and great power rivalry in the region will dictate the future of ASEAN and will force the member states to remain as a bloc. Forming a comprehensive single community connected in all dimensions is the only survival tactic ASEAN can pursue. There’s no other choice.

Working to perfect the system, and trying to ensure the commitment of all ASEAN citizens, from grassroots to leadership, is an ambitious but necessary task the states of Southeast Asia must take on.

Fuadi Pitsuwan presented a version of this piece at the 7th Asia Economic Forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as part of the Young Leaders Programme.