ASEAN Trilemma: Wherefore the 2017 summit?

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By Federico M. Macaranas

TWO IN, one out.

This is the trilemma facing leaders as the 2017 ASEAN Summit strives to give equal attention to the three communities that make up ASEAN today. The political-security and economic communities are “in” — they talk to each other, but the sociocultural community is still a motley of networks waiting to be formed into a consistent ecosystem — to get the high-level attention of the key players in the first two.

The three pillars constituting the ASEAN Community thrived in different environments:

• first in the political context of decolonialized states fearing breakdown from internal unrest and Communist threat from the late sixties through late eighties,

• then in the economic tremors of socialist countries entering world markets with their sizable labor force and consumers liberated from rigid planning systems, and

• finally in the sociocultural transformations due to technological disruption changing the way people relate to each other in education (learner-centered, outcomes-based, cross-border, research and community services focused ), health (patient-centered in communicable or lifestyle diseases) , financing (more inclusive, creative in reaching small players), governance (business-like in execution, more equity, and green-conscious), personal security (human-rights-based, multi-dimensional even in data privacy/ migrant movements), and in sharing economy markets (asset use rather than ownership).

A variety of expectations face the ASEAN 2017 Summit in Manila as high level political and business leaders meet.

This is happening at the same time that ASEAN citizens search for their collective voices to be heard. The effort towards that started in previous Summits more than a decade ago, but failed due to issues of representativeness of delegates, budgets to finance meetings, weak positioning on priorities, and lack of champions and leaders who bridge disparate social and cultural issues .

In preparation for this year’s summit and related meetings, a people-oriented and -centered vision of ASEAN is what the Philippines mapped out for the third phase of ASEAN’s community building — one focused on sociocultural dimension without neglecting the matters more likely to grab headlines in popular media (peace and order — North Korea and ISIS caliphate in Southeast Asia; maritime security in Northeast and Southeast Asia; inclusive and innovation-led growth of a young, urban, educated workforce; resiliency in the face of the Pacific Ring of Fire).

But even in 2017, a high-level dialogue of sociocultural leaders with political and business movers and shakers is still very elusive, partly because of the even more diverse concerns of 20 sectors in the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) today.

These concerns are made more chaotic by the increased voices of smaller groups able to create electronic communities of similarly minded people, with positions on issues that surprise pollsters, policy makers, and academics alike (recall the victories of Brexit, candidates Duterte and Trump.)

The politico-security and economic communities were easier to form in the first half-century of ASEAN’s existence. Technology disruption and globalization have impacted on ASEAN’s third pillar in even more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous ways.

Hence, it is easier for the elite business advisory group in ASEAN to offer programs to assist micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) with mentoring programs in 2017, rather than for governments cross political divides to assist them — after all, the lines are blurred in defining the public vs. private sector among ASEAN’s latecomer socialist members (the village enterprises cooperatives, associations, and federations of MSMEs) — the object of attention in boosting equity issues for sociocultural pillar of ASEAN to thrive.

ASEAN citizens look for the immediate benefits of the 2017 Summit and related meetings in their everyday lives — i.e., the organization’s ability to produce tangible results especially in trade and free flow of people , like access to more export markets and regional supply chains, greater diversity of goods for sale in their countries, ease of travel to other ASEAN countries, and greater tourism opportunities, especially using ASEAN sea lanes.

ASEAN citizens also look for more trade and investment linkages especially for greater access to jobs, good governance, equity, the environment, and human rights — where social innovation is needed.

These are the results of a survey of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) co-published in ASEAN@50 , the 5-volume publication on “one of the world’s most successful and enduring regional organizations,” as Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano noted in his foreword. The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs is co-publisher of this magnum opus featuring essays of leaders and academic researchers across the three pillars of ASEAN.

Yet, there are other expectations.

A longer-term focus away from official and business/elite concerns (expanding ASEAN University Network is foremost) is needed to foster the sense of ASEAN citizenship especially among students, and on noneconomic issues such as corruption, climate change, and natural disasters.

ASEAN people expect concrete leadership direction that makes communities feel they are going to succeed in the ASEAN 2025 goals: integrated (in all three communities), connected (physical, institutional, and people-to-people), resilient (from economic swings, natural and man-made risks); a significant voice and player in global and regional affairs.

In the latter, ASEAN has much to share with the world, given the many public goods that can be championed by ASEAN leaders on all fronts — even in food security alone — as demonstrated in the past by rice research that saved millions from starvation in China and India, promising new food and drug products from marine research in the Coral Triangle, home of the world’s most biodiverse waters, and potable water research in Singapore as it pioneered innovative approaches to water security.

The Master Plan for ASEAN Connectivity identified four areas where ASEAN “could be at the forefront of change as opposed to simply utilizing existing technologies”: education, e-commerce, e-payments solution, and cloud-based technologies which are clearly private sector driven and have definite impact on the ASCC. Thus it can promote simultaneous cooperation and competition in many communities and industries in the 21st century. Truly people-oriented and -centered, and perhaps not even in need of the top leadership attention in the first two communities of ASEAN for the moment.

Integration of the three ASEAN Communities will not be one of the 2017 Summit landmark achievements; once again, it is a mere inter-governmental wish, waiting for future Summits to address.


Federico M. Macaranas is a retired Professor at the Asian Institute of Management. He served in many ASEAN 2017 preparatory activities of government, business, and civil society organizations.