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Saturday October 3, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Saturday October 3, 2015 MYT 9:04:20 AM
by munir majid
Asean forward: Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (centre) posing hand-in-hand with AMMTC leaders during the opening ceremony of the 10th Asean Ministrial Meeting on Transnational Crime (AMMTC) in Kuala Lumpur. Asean’s post-2015 agenda will be launched on Nov 22.
Asean must show greater ambition than just being there or thereabouts
AT a recent international forum in Bali, I was asked where I thought Asean would be in 10 years’ time. I had replied “somewhere” I guess, but I don’t know quite where.
I was not being flippant. Neither do the Asean leaders and officials know where Asean will be. They may have their big and small plans, but unless they truly implement them Asean will always be sub-optimal.
In the rhetoric, there is the sing-song repetition that, if Asean was one economy, it would already be the seventh largest in the world and the fourth largest by some forecasts in 2030, behind only the EU, China and the US. The truly big league, with the third largest labour force, of whom 60% are under 35 years of age. A demographic dividend and a consumer boom.
All this if Asean was one economy. If it did not operate effectively as one, the projected trade and investment and growth will not follow.
The post-2015 agenda will be launched on Nov 22 even as the Asean community is inaugurated, indicating the rolling way in which Asean operates without serious check. As we know it is difficult to roll upwards, unless the gradient is gentle, and this is the way Asean has chosen to progress.
Even so, the progress is not what it is made up to be. When the Asean economic community blueprint was released in 2007, for instance, its main objective was the removal of non-tariff barriers (NTBs) in the Asean Free Trade Area (Afta) whose tariffs are, or are close to, zero. Serious non-tariff barriers remain but the Asean Economic Community (AEC) will be pronounced all the same.
Where really is Asean when it says it is somewhere but it is not quite there? So I was not being facetious. Asean has the intention but not quite the will. This way Asean will progress bit by bit, but how much it cannot be really said.
Like with motherhood, nobody can disagree with the four pillars of the AEC: a single market and production base; a competitive Asean; an Asean open to the world; and an equitable Asean.
Let’s just take the single market and production base which requires the free movement of goods and services, let’s just say of skilled labour, capital and investment. How much has really been achieved? We have observed about the Afta and non-tariff barriers, but it is also hampered by severe limitation to trade in services.
Just think about financial services whose Asean footprint is limited by national policy and regulation which additionally constrain the free movement of skilled labour and information. There is the Asean Framework Agreement on Services (AFAS) and various packages on which officials work to roll out, but with these dampeners where exactly are we? How does the Asean scorecard measure the achievement level of trade in services? One hundred per cent because the AFAS has been signed?
When something is signed or ratified but not implemented, Asean does not do anything about it. The largely average secretariat staff accept national reporting of accession without monitoring enabling domestic action.
Thus we have a situation of a flawed community whose benefits are not even or consistent. Indonesia can decide on something today and reverse it tomorrow. Any Asean member state can. There is thus no law and order, a community where there is a certain level of clear expectation.
While Asean is an inter-governmental association of states and there is no surrender of sovereignty to a supranational authority, it is accepted international practice that when a state enters into an agreement it is legally bound to it.
Asean must not take whatever little good there is of international law backwards: that a state is not legally bound by an agreement it has entered into.
In the post-2015 plan, Asean must show greater ambition than this situation of gay abandon – complete political and legal laissez fair. It must on a number of specific areas hold its member states to their commitments. Let’s say, in respect of mutual recognition arrangements (MRAs), if it is committed, all Asean qualified engineers can work in any member state, it has to be worked all the way through to every relevant domestic policy, law, rule and regulation that would allow such free movement.
Everyone knows that this is not the case now. Yet there is another tick on the scorecard which says the free movement of engineers has been achieved. Who are we kidding?
The Asean model of progression by stealth and being rather economical with the truth has to be re-examined. It can concentrate on some areas where real progress will be vigorously measured and undertakings must be fully delivered, rather than continue across a very broad front which gives only the appearance of success, or makes very patchy advances.
In respect of NTBs, the Asean Economic Ministers (AEMs) decided at its last meeting in August to concentrate on four sectors for the removal of identified NTBs in 2016, as a serious step to address this problem. This must absolutely be followed through. It also approved the setting up of an Asean secretariat portal where particular NTB experiences will be reported and advertised, a welcome name and shame mode – although the company making the report would be worried it might be victimised going forward.
Before the portal is operational, the AEMs must decide on some form of protection for the company making the report.
The global realities, meanwhile, are dynamic and changing. Even within Asean, there are sub-regional economic forces which draw continental South-East Asia, minus Malaysia and Myanmar (for different reasons) towards Yunnan rather than Jakarta. There has always been talk of a two-speed Asean, but we should add to that, a multi-layered one that could be peeled off.
Of course so many other economic condominiums are being formed. They will all have a pulling away from Asean force, whether the RCEP or the TPP. We should never be complacent about so-called Asean centrality. Asean is only central because it organises all these spectacular meetings and because others allow it to be.
Asean should also be mindful about the development in US-China relations. Not only its destabilising aspects but also a fully hard-wired relationship. Just think what happens to claimant states in the South China Sea disputes if the US accepts the Chinese imposed status quo in return for express Chinese declaration recognising freedom of navigation and overflight rights – and there are already intimations of this from the statement at the end of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US last month.
Who in Asean monitors these kinds of developments and presents to the leaders of the “community” a position paper on what the future might hold?
My message at another conference this past week, this time in Singapore, is that as a community, Asean cannot continue to hold out that its sheer existence reflects its success. This has been the rather complacent rendition on Asean by most officials and so-called regional thought leaders.
This is not good enough. Asean must move up more than a notch from how it has operated thus far, if it is to be taken seriously as a community.
Tan Sri 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.
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ASEAN, Munir, Asean, Malaysia, Government
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