By Eduardo C. Tadem

As the ASEAN marks its 50th year, it is time to examine its record in terms of its goals and objectives and, its impact on the people and communities it purports to represent.

The goal of regional integration was set in 1992 with the establishment of the ASEAN Free Trade Area. Nothing much happened until 2003 when leaders resolved to establish an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2020. In 2007, this was advanced to 2015.

Regional economic integration, however, remains an elusive goal and it has been a long drawn out process. Skepticism abounds from both the business and academic sectors with a 2013 study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) concluding that “given ASEAN’s track record, it has no prospect of coming close to an EU-style single market by the AEC’s 2015 deadline — or even by 2020 or 2025.”

Why has it been a long and tortuous effort for ASEAN economic integration?

First, ASEAN leaders’ AEC vision is weakened by a strong aversion to diminish national sovereignty for the sake of deeper economic integration. National strategies clash with ASEAN’s internal goals. Several members refuse to lower tariffs on certain critical products. Malaysia insists on protecting its state-owned car and vehicle parts industries, fearing competition from Thailand. Indonesia continues to protect its agricultural products while the Philippines refuses to open up its petrochemical products sector.

Progress has been slow on eliminating non-tariff barriers, which consist of “import bans, import subsidies, quotas, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, and technical barriers to trade, state aid measures, public procurement requirements, trade finance, export taxes and restrictions and investment measures, etc.”

Despite the avowed goal of increasing trade among ASEAN economies, the record shows a virtually stagnant pattern.

Intra-ASEAN trade peaked in 1995 at 24.1 percent but since then, has barely moved forward with the average for 1995-2015 hitting less than 25 percent. For 17 years there has been scant progress in intra-regional trade. ASEAN economies have been trading more with non-ASEAN economies than with themselves.

Intra-ASEAN trade is also marked by vast inequalities. About four-fifths of regional trade is dominated by Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia.

Developments over the years have actually pre-empted and/or undermined collective efforts.

Examples are the various bilateral agreements entered into by ASEAN members such as between Singapore with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Jordan, Panama, South Korea, and the US; Thailand with Australia, New Zealand, India, and China; Philippines with Japan; Malaysia with Japan; and, Indonesia with Japan.

As a body, ASEAN has also been moving away from integration by developing organizational linkages with non-ASEAN countries. Ironically, the ADB-ISEAS report says that the ASEAN FTAs “hardly promote ASEAN’s regional and global integration,” and do not further “the cause of ASEAN’s integration with the wider Asia and beyond.”

Also posing a challenge to ASEAN integration is China’s aggressive involvement in the region through large-scale infrastructure projects funded by loans. It has been pointed out that, “heavy Chinese investments in dams, transportation routes, energy grids, trade bases and other infrastructure … weakens ASEAN and diminishes its influence as a unified bloc.”

Social inequalities within and between ASEAN countries have likewise haunted the region’s path towards integration.

The 2007 ASEAN Charter disappointingly omits mechanisms to enforce compliance with decisions and does not outline any consequences for failing to meet the timelines.

Its human rights body has no provisions for enforcing compliance with any human rights standard while its economic blueprint includes an “Asean Minus X” provision that allows members to opt out of economic commitments if they can win consensual agreement from other members.

ASEAN’s longstanding policy of non-interference in members’ internal affairs reaffirms a 2012 ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights that allows member governments to exclude serious abuses because of “national particularities” or “cultural background” as well as restrictions on a wide array of grounds, including “national security” and “public morality.” Currently, eight out of the ten ASEAN countries are run by authoritarian governments.

One weakness of ASEAN is reflected in the matter of the South China Sea disputes. Members have competing claims in this area. But the main impediment to a peaceful and lasting solution to this is the intractable position of parties involved that uncompromisingly asserts doctrines of absolute sovereignty and permanent territorial rights.

Civil society’s engagement with ASEAN has been disappointing for the former.

A 2016 internal review by the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (ACSC/APF)) concluded that “individual ASEAN member countries have consistently resisted and vacillated with regards civil society participation and engagement.”

The ACSC/APF bemoaned “ASEAN’s prevailing silence and lack of attention and response to the observations and recommendations raised in all … ACSC/APF Statements.”

The more prominent concerns raised by civil society are:

1) lack of popular participation in ASEAN decision-making;

2) rising inequalities between and among member-countries;

3) weakening democracies and rise of authoritarian governance;

4) human rights deficits and absence of sanctions against rogue regimes;

5) dominance of an elite-centered development strategy and failure to attain inclusive growth;

6) lack of a regional identity and unity;

7) weak social protection; and

8) continuing gender inequalities.

Civil society’s frustration has given rise to moves to chart a new course in terms of developing an alternative form of regional integration that is based on practices and initiatives on the ground by grassroots and sectoral groups.

Conflicting national strategies, similar export product lines, social and economic inequalities within and between ASEAN societies, and moves away from integration pose serious obstacles to realizing the ASEAN Economic Community and reflect the absence of a distinct and unifying regional identity.

As a noted Filipino economist pointed out: After more than four decades of conscious efforts for greater integration of their economies, the five original members of the ASEAN … find their economies no closer to each other than they were when they first formally got together in 1967.

The challenge facing civil society today lies from outside and beyond the ASEAN process.

As ASEAN remains locked in a market-centered and corporate-led process that is state-supported, civil society must be tightly interconnected with grassroots initiatives and the creative practices of peoples struggling to carve a more dignified life for their families and communities and for the future.

Eduardo C. Tadem, Ph.D., is co-convenor of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum 2017 Philippine National Organizing Committee. He is also the President of the Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC) and a retired Professor of Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman.