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ASEAN’s Plans: Are They Feasible?

In a recent speech, the Secretary General of ASEAN, H.E. Ong Keng Yoon discussed the need “ … to transform ASEAN into a highly competitive region that increasingly integrates into the global economy, where there is free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labour, freer flow of capital, and equitable economic development.” This is because “… [i]t is often cited that increased global competition for trade and investment, particularly with the rise of China and India, is the major impetus for ASEAN Economic Community. A stronger, integrated and more competitive ASEAN is seen as necessary to overcome the preferential treatment some other countries receive. In addition, the Community is intended to create a single market of more than half a billion people for consumer goods offering scope for producers to exploit economies of scale. This will then boost significantly ASEAN’s attractiveness to investors.”

Is there any more to these aspirations than hope? It is very common for commentators to dismiss ASEAN and its plans as being the unworkable intentions of bureaucrats far removed from the real world and largely involved in the attempt to enrich themselves. This of course is generally just evidence of lazy and uninformed thinking. ASEAN secretariat and country civil servants do their best to bring agreement while struggling with lack of technical capacity and behind the scenes political will. That a group of countries so diverse and divided in so many important ways as those of ASEAN can reach any agreements at all is something of an achievement in itself. Plans are necessarily restricted to the economic sphere because only in the economic sphere are there incentives for all state governments to participate positively. Consider for example that the ILO, among other major international organisations, has recently concluded that it is next to impossible to work towards holding the Burmese government to internationally-accepted human rights standards, while external sources raise bilateral issues of greater immediate import than those which affect ASEAN as a whole. In recent days, for example, Vietnam has entered into a number of new investment agreements with the Republic of Korea and is shaping its foreign commercial legal code accordingly, while new schemes originating from China to build railways into Vietnam will more closely bind that country into bilateral trade markets. External agreements, complex as they are and no matter to what extent they may be in accordance with ASEAN’s overall vision, necessarily use up valuable scarce diplomatic and technical resources.

It would, clearly, be helpful if individuals within ASEAN had the opportunity to contribute to charter development directly but this, in practical terms would be extremely difficult. The controversies within the European Union, where citizens are in general terms much more politically literate and with greater access to information and civic resources, indicate how difficult it is for people to achieve consensus. How much more difficult will this be when Thailand takes the Secretary General’s seat later this year while, as seems likely, soldiers and armed police stalk the streets of the country, holding off pro-democracy and anti-junta demonstrators? There have been good agreements reached in previous ASEAN gatherings but these have foundered because of the difficulties involved in negotiating suitable mechanisms for ensuring compliance with regulations. These problems are not going to get much easier in the foreseeable future. AseanAffairs
H.E. Ong Keng Yoon’s speech to the ASEAN Economic Community Coordinating Conference on June 7th, 2007, is available online at:

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