This article makes some very valid points concerning issues that ASEAN needs to address if they intend to be more competitive as a trading bloc. More on this a little later…

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Will ASEAN integration take place as expected?
By Tetsuya Tsuruhara

A diplomat of a country belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations came up with an interesting metaphor about ASEAN’s landmark charter, signed at the organization’s summit meeting last month.

“We, too, are wearing suits like European gentlemen,” the diplomat said, adding the difference lay in the tailoring.

With the establishment of the charter, the ASEAN, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in August, finally has a set of written regulations. The charter is a specific step on a path to create an ASEAN Community by 2015. The charter adopted a format similar to that of the Treaty on European Union, better known as the Maastricht Treaty. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed that the ASEAN countries will unite as an independent entity in the future.

However, the concept of the community differs fundamentally from that of the European Union.

European integration started as a negation of a nationalism that had gone too far. The first step of integration, led by France and West Germany–countries that had repeatedly fought wars over clashing national interests–was to consign to a supranational institution the management of steel and coal, materials necessary for weapons production.

The “European gentlemen” have been working hard to establish common policies among European countries by partially giving up state sovereignty. The existence of the European Commission, which manages the bloc’s trade and commerce as a supranational institution, and the introduction of a single currency, the euro, illustrates the depth of integration realized to date.

Many ASEAN countries have experienced colonial rule. Therefore, nationalism is a concept that should be accepted in ASEAN, and for such countries, the establishment of a supranational institution seems irrelevant. Countries have avoided conflict within the region by refraining from interfering in the domestic matters of neighboring countries. Any concerted action can only be carried out with the consent of all the member nations, and even after consent is obtained, the implementation of policies cannot be forced upon other countries. Until now, that has been the ASEAN way.

However, it became necessary to review this approach after the Asian economic crisis of 1997. Former Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun points out that the crisis awakened ASEAN member countries to the reality that collective action can be more effective than taking action on an individual basis.

The main purpose of their proposed collective action is to establish a single market that ensures the free movement of goods, services, capital and workers. But unlike the EU, the ASEAN leaders do not have a vision for their single market as, for example, a region in which citizens can move freely without passports.

The situation concerns some people.

“China isn’t waiting. India isn’t waiting. [Indian Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh told us they have had 9 percent economic growth in the last four years,” Lee said.

ASEAN was once regarded as the center of the world’s economic growth, but to regain this reputation, Lee says it is necessary to capture the foreign investment that is going to China and India, and to stimulate trade by establishing a single market with a population of more than 560 million.

However, the issue of sovereignty disrupted negotiations in the drawing up of the ASEAN Charter. In fact, ASEAN has failed to incorporate any new measures into the charter that might strengthen trust in the international community over issues of compliance and decision making when members fail to reach consensus.

Instead, the summit meeting was shaken by the problems of Myanmar, which demonstrated to the world that the association cannot even urge one of its own members to democratize. Such a result derives from ASEAN’s approach of prioritizing the need for countries “to exist as a group” as opposed to their “acting as a group.”

One of the results of ASEAN integration is said to be the gradual abolishment of tariffs within the region. However, it was the active expansion within the region of foreign enterprises–such as Japanese automakers–that became the driving force of the abolition of tariffs.

As for the financial resources behind the running of the small and weak ASEAN Secretariat, all member countries are required to pay the same amount as that of Laos, the poorest member country. This is in stark contrast to the EU, in which member countries have to make contributions based on their relative economic strength. It seems that an awareness of acting together as ASEAN has yet to emerge among the leaders of its member nations.

Rodolfo Severino, former ASEAN secretary general, points out that people should not expect the character of ASEAN to change overnight.

The mere act of putting on a “suit” will not make ASEAN any more capable of changing itself, and member countries should not forget that China and India will not wait for them.

(Dec. 5, 2007)

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