The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded on Aug. 8, 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Since then, its membership has expanded to ten (10) countries to include Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.
ASEAN covers a land area of 4.4 million square kms., 3% of the total land area of earth. Its territorial waters are about three times larger. It has a combined population of over 625 million people or 8.8% of the world’s population. Its combined nominal GDP is almost $3 trillion. As a single entity, ASEAN would rank as the 6th largest economy in the world, behind the USA, China, Japan, France, and Germany. It shares land borders with India, China, Bangladesh, East Timor and Papua New Guinea, and maritime borders with India, China, Palau and Australia.
ASEAN has been establishing itself as a regional platform for Asian integration and cooperation, working with other Asian nations to:
1) promote unity, prosperity, development and sustainability.
2) pursue measures in resolving disputes.
The “ASEAN Way” is an informal and personal style of compromise, consensus, and consultation, which are constantly utilized for quiet diplomacy enabling ASEAN leaders to communicate effectively behind closed doors to avoid embarrassment that could lead to more conflict. Decision making by consensus requires members to see eye-to-eye before it could move forward on an issue.
Unfortunately, member-states are not aligned on how the “ASEAN Way” should be applied. For example, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos emphasize “noninterference” while older member countries focus on “cooperation and coordination.” That fundamental difference hinders efforts to resolve issues and when collective action is necessary in a given situation.
ASEAN is built on three pillars:
1) the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC)
2) the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)
3) the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC)
At the 14th ASEAN Summit in 2009, ASEAN national leaders adopted the ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint (APSC). It aimed to create a robust political-security environment within ASEAN characterized by the following:
a) a rules-based community of shared values and norms;
b) a cohesive, peaceful, stable and resilient region with a shared responsibility toward comprehensive security;
c) a dynamic and outward-looking region in an increasingly integrated and interdependent world.
The ASEAN Defense Industry Collaboration (ADIC) was proposed in May 2010 in Hanoi. It aimed to reduce defense imports from non-ASEAN countries by half (i.e., from $25 billion down to $12.5 billion a year) and develop a robust ASEAN defense industry. ADIC was formally adopted the following year in Jakarta to enhance security cooperation in maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-terrorism, and military medicine.
ASEAN sought economic integration by creating the AEC by the end of 2015. The average economic growth of ASEAN’s member nations during 1989–2009 was between 3.8% and 7%, far greater than APEC’s average growth of 2.8%. The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) was established in January 1992 that includes a Common Effective Preferential Tariff (CEPT) to promote the free flow of goods between them. The target was zero tariffs by 2016, which was not met.
“ASEAN Plus Six” (China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and India) is a prerequisite for the planned East Asia Community. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) codified the proposed free-trade agreement involving ASEAN plus Six. RCEP allows member-states to protect local sectors and gives more time for compliance. RCEP covers 45% of the world’s population and about a third of the world’s total GDP.
It was also during the 14th ASEAN Summit when the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint was adopted. The ASCC envisions a people-centered and socially responsible community with enduring solidarity and unity, forged by a common identity of a society that cares and shares. Among its focus areas are: human and ecological security; building the ASEAN brand; and narrowing development gaps.
This is a tough challenge as the idea of ASEAN as a “community” with “shared values” has yet to be understood, internalized, and practiced by its diverse populace. While most appreciated at the policy maker level, ASEAN remains vague to most including the Philippines. Of the three pillars, the ASEAN Economic Community is moving relatively faster and could benefit ordinary Filipinos in many ways.
1) local goods and services today may not be the cheapest value for one’s money, but opening our trade border will lower costs and prices to improve affordability and purchasing power.
2) ASEAN is eyeing to enhance travel, tourism and health care to improve standards of living. Facilitating visas and employment is crucial for professionals and skilled labor seeking new job opportunities and better protection from predatory practices.
3) ASEAN universities are enhancing cooperation to allow increased mobility for students.
With ASEAN citizens traveling, working, and studying within the region, the comprehension and acceptance of an ASEAN identity and idea of the common good will surely enhance regional integration.
ASEAN also made some headway this year in the political-security pillar. In August, Foreign Ministers formally endorsed the framework of the code of conduct (CoC) to address disputes in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea for eventual adoption by ASEAN and China. Last month, ASEAN’s defense ministers agreed to:
a) reaffirm freedom of navigation in and above the South China Sea (SCS);
b) pursue peaceful dispute resolution in accord with international law and UNCLOS;
c) operationalize HADR, the Direct Communications Infrastructure and Center of Military Medicine;
d) combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations;
e) express grave concern over tensions in the Korean Peninsula.
Achieving ASEAN Integration, however, remains difficult. The deadline is a moving target. The “ASEAN Way” is slowing its progress, and so are geopolitical divisions that must be hurdled in ASEAN’s regional interest. Obstacles must be overcome or skirted to forge ahead toward its dream as a force for good.
With the free flow of capital, human resources, technology, goods and services; better defense cooperation and industrial production; and open access to travel, tourism, education, health care and other social services, a united ASEAN community will produce better Filipinos and a better Philippines.
Rafael M. Alunan III served in the Cabinet of President Corazon C. Aquino as Secretary of Tourism, and in the Cabinet of President Fidel V. Ramos as Secretary of Interior and Local Government.