North Korea: Dealing with the “Rocket Man” via Negotiation, not Threats

September 20, 2017

North Korea: Dealing with the “Rocket Man”via Negotiation, not Threats

by Editorial Board, East Asia Forum

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War? “Look at the Map”, says French President Emmanuel Macron in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour at United Nations, New York

The North Korean nuclear threat has ratcheted up in recent months, following new rounds of missile and nuclear weapons tests by Pyongyang. In July, North Korea undertook two tests of an intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM). Then on 3 September, it undertook its sixth nuclear test of a new thermonuclear bomb designed to be used with its ICBMs. US President Donald Trump responded to the ICBM tests by promising to deliver ‘fire and fury’ if North Korea again threatened the United States, to which North Korea responded in turn by threatening to deploy missiles into the seas near US military bases in Guam. And in the midst of all this, Pyongyang continued to unnerve the Japanese government and population by launching two ballistic missiles into the seas beyond the island of Hokkaido.

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The “Rocket Man” says to President Donald Trump: “Show me some respect. I am the leader of North Korea,an independent and sovereign nation. My duty is to protect my people from warmongers like you and to act in the best interest of my country. Aren’t you doing the same for your people when you say to the world, “America First”?

North Korea’s most recent tests and launches are significant. Like it or not, they demonstrate that the regime has crossed the technical threshold of being able to target the continental United States — as well as US allies in Asia — potentially with a nuclear warhead.

Throughout the growing crisis, the Trump administration — along with most of the international community — has viewed China as the key player in bringing North Korea to heel. This perception of China’s special leverage stems from China’s decades-old treaty of friendship and mutual assistance with the North Korean regime and, even more importantly, the fact that around 90 per cent of North Korean trade now takes place with or through China. Given North Korea’s near total dependence on China for its international economic ties, the United States and others have consistently called for China to tighten economic sanctions.

China had resisted tightening sanctions on North Korea for fear that economic pressure could prompt massive inflows of refugees into China’s Northeast, or even the collapse of the North Korean regime. Although North Korea remains China’s most troublesome and unpredictable neighbour, it also serves as a strategic ‘buffer’ between China and US forces stationed in Japan and South Korea.

Yet a combination of growing international pressure, and Beijing’s own frustration with Pyongyang over its unwelcome nuclear program, has made China more willing to apply sanctions and other economic measures. In February, in the wake of North Korea’s test of a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan, and the assassination in Malaysia of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, China announced it was suspending coal imports from North Korea for the remainder of 2017. More significantly, on 11 September China (and Russia) agreed to a new round of UN Security Council sanctions which will ban North Korean textile exports, freeze its imports of crude oil at current levels and introduce a cap on its imports of refined petroleum. These are the most far-reaching sanctions that have so far been applied to North Korea. In addition, Chinese state-run banks have begun to ban North Koreans from opening new accounts and to suspend transactions on accounts already held by North Koreans.

Yet the key problem in all of this is that there is little evidence that sanctions applied in the past have worked in checking North Korea’s nuclear program. Most regional analysts are fairly pessimistic that even this latest round of sanctions will have much effect on the regime’s nuclear development plans.

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In our two lead pieces this week, Chen Dongxiao of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, and Jia Qingguo of Peking University, underscore the urgent need for new thinking in managing the North Korean nuclear issue. Both highlight diplomatic engagement, with Pyongyang and among other key states in the region, as the only way forward.

Chen suggests that it is futile to hope that increased Chinese pressure will somehow encourage North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons. He underlines Pyongyang’s lack of regard for China’s interests to date, suggesting that, ‘Pyongyang will never shy away from pressing for more concessions by leveraging its nuclear weapons program, even at the expense of China’s national security interests and overall regional stability’.

Instead, the region must find new diplomatic and economic incentives to encourage Pyongyang to come back to the negotiating table. As a first step, both authors nominate China’s ‘two suspensions’ proposal as a way to reduce the dangerous tensions between Pyongyang and Washington. This proposal would see ‘North Korea…suspend nuclear and missile tests in exchange for suspension of joint US-South Korea military exercises’, explains Jia.

As a second step, Jia calls on Beijing to begin active ‘contingency planning’ talks with Washington and Seoul. In the past, Beijing has been hesitant to take part in such talks, out of concern for the signals that this would send to Pyongyang. Jia and Chen carry clear messages for Pyongyang and Washington. Given the gravity of the situation and the risk that North Korea may continue to ignore Beijing’s diplomatic efforts, it is now time for China to put aside its hesitation and engage in serious talks with Washington and Seoul, Jia argues.

Contingency planning talks should cover a range of critical issues including: who would control North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal in the event of a collapse of the regime; how to deal with the North Korean refugee problem; who would be responsible for restoring domestic order in North Korea in the event of a crisis; post-crisis political arrangements on the Korean Peninsula; and removal of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system when and if North Korea’s nuclear program has ended.

Each of these issues is a source of considerable anxiety in Beijing, and so far they’ve stymied closer regional cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue. Indeed, these issues have, in Chen Dongxiao’s words, showcased the ‘deeply entrenched strategic suspicion’ between the US and China. Dialogue and negotiation on these questions may therefore help to alter the current impasse between China and the United States, and lessen Pyongyang’s ability to exploit the lack of unity among its neighbours.

As is now widely understood, both in Pyongyang and around the region, there are no good military options for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. That will crucially require countries to get much better at talking to their adversaries and negotiating on fundamental, long-term political and security questions.

The EAF Editorial Board is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

ASEAN needs a strategic rethink–4th Industrial Revolution

September 11, 2017

ASEAN needs a strategic rethink–4th Industrial Revolution

by Dr. Munir Majid*

AFTER the deserved 50th anniversary celebrations, ASEAN needs to take a long, hard look into the future, and to be ready for it.

The trouble is the future is here. And ASEAN might just fall short.

In my contribution to the book ASEAN Future Forward: Anticipating the Next Fifty Years”, published by the Institute for Strategic and International Studies, I highlighted two developments that threaten to tear up the script on ASEAN’s future shape.

Leaving aside the definite rise of China which will, planned or otherwise, rewrite and disrupt assumed intra-ASEAN relationships, I would like in today’s column to draw attention to the other deterministic development – Digitisation.

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Now popularly dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Digital Economy is already upon us, while in the ASEAN narrative its greater economic integration will attract foreign manufacturing investment based on low labour cost in such destinations as Myanmar, Indonesia, even Vietnam.

Not too many months ago, studies and surveys were being done – including by the private sector – on foreign investments planned in such countries, predicated also on the large, integrated ASEAN market of 630 million people.

Yet even now, intelligent robotics, particularly robotic manufacturing, is readily available to displace human labour. What happens then to the expectant millions waiting to attain employment from the huge investments that would, if they did come, be looking to more efficient, perhaps even cheaper, means of production afforded by robots and artificial intelligent manufacturing?

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Beyond 50–Inclusive, Cohesive, Integrated, Peaceful, Competitive, Prosperous and People-Centered ASEAN

What would happen also to existent MSME (micro, small and medium) manufacturing employment, that would be displaced by digital means of production, and to the competitiveness of that sector – bearing in mind it is hobbling along looking for access to finance – against products whose quality and cost could sweep them out of business?

The level of underemployment in economies such as Indonesia is high. Without new jobs with new investment, expectations of growing populations are going to be dashed. Employment in the MSME sector in ASEAN as a whole is overwhelming, reaching over 90% in some member states.

ASEAN is sitting on a socio-economic time bomb which could blow apart its economic integration assumptions and, indeed, its much vaunted political stability. Already there are so many social and political forces threatening Asean together and separately. If there are no jobs as well and there is economic deprivation, the situation becomes explosive.

All this is just in relation to the challenge of the digital economy to manufacturing employment. The challenge actually cuts across all sectors, including services. A study in Malaysia across all sectors puts the probability factor of “computerisable jobs” at 0.8 for unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. Where the extant of such jobs is greater in less developed ASEAN economies, the threat obviously will be more extensive.

Of course new technologies can also facilitate growth through greater efficiency and productivity, but the main risk I am emphasising is to employment. Even if MSMEs get on to e-commerce platforms or are able to link up with the supply chains of large and globally connected companies – which remains a huge struggle for them across the region – the competition among them demands better quality and lower cost products and services which imply greater application of labour-displacing processes.

It is also true new jobs will be created in the digital economy. When motor cars, for instance, replaced horse coaches in the 1920s, new jobs in automobile manufacturing, car repair, mass tourism, road building and the petrol business were created. The same will follow the advent of new technologies in the digital economy.

However, investment in data and digital infrastructure is first essential to support innovation, growth and jobs in the new economy. Such investment is limited everywhere in the region, with Singapore being the striking exception, and the less developed economies of Myanmar, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines way behind.

Entrepreneurship is an important part of the digital economy, but what is essential is not present – a regulatory environment in which businesses can thrive and fail, with easier access to finance for small innovative firms and lighter procedures for start-ups and lower failure costs.

The new jobs – by no means in numbers represented in conventional economy activity today – that will be available too require skills not delivered by current education systems across ASEAN.

Overhaul of education systems takes time. The least expressed change that must take place, because of political correctness, is the disposition across ASEAN among the political establishment against argument and questioning. But cognitive skills are the most needed in the digital economy. Apart from this, other specific abilities are also essential.

The Web Analyst has to have digital and marketing knowledge apart from the skills of an analyst. The Business Intelligence Manager has to have a background in computer engineering, economics or mathematics. Other demanding sets of skills are required for the Digital Analyst, Virtual Reality Architect or Virtual Data Scientist.

And we are just talking about high level, new job categories. Lower down the scale, the upskilling requirements are a struggle to meet among those doing less skillful jobs. Serious retraining is required. In ASEAN today, only Singapore has an effective upskilling retraining system to meet the needs of the digital economy.

In America, it has been found, actually three quarters of the jobs lost among the middle and working classes are due to inability to move up the new skills ladder. (Only a quarter is due to imports which President Trump so likes to blame).

The magnitude of the challenge posed to ASEAN by the digital economy is huge. It is a game changer which present ASEAN integration planning fails to even begin to address. It is a sweeping revolution which the lackadaisical ASEAN way of doing things will not be able to contend with.

It requires new thinking in ASEAN if ASEAN is going to be the way forward. There needs to be a regional social and education policy direction, if it is not going to be left to individual ASEAN countries to face up to the challenge with different levels of adequacy, or rather inadequacies. The disparities in ASEAN will otherwise widen. The centre will then not hold.

After 50 years, ASEAN cannot live in the past when the future is upon it. Many cynics have often said ASEAN is only an option to its members – when everything else fails. The more optimistic have always contended that ASEAN to its members is the first, if not exclusive, choice.

In the already current future if ASEAN does not plan to face the challenge of the digital economy together, it is likely to become just an addendum.

*Dr. Munir Majid, Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also Chairman of CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

New Approaches to ASEAN Regionalism

September 4, 2017

New Approaches to  ASEAN Regionalism

by  Tan Hsien-Li, NUS


Duterte meets with Cambodian PM Hun Sen


Throughout its 50-year history of regional cooperation, legalisation and institutionalisation have not featured all that prominently in ASEAN’s diplomatic repertoire. Especially in its formative years, ASEAN relied on political flexibility and institutional informality, eschewing binding legal relations. Even as laws and institutions were developed in ASEAN, adherence to them remained underwhelming.


While ASEAN regionalism has often been lauded for achieving relative regional security, it has simultaneously been derided as weak and ineffective due to the lack of adequate implementation of its collective vision. But there are clear signs that the organisation has been adapting itself to have stronger laws and institutions since the ASEAN Charter was adopted in 2007.

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Cambodia played to the very successful WEF-ASEAN Open Forum, May 10- 12, 2017. Since joining ASEAN in 1999, the Kingdom under the leadership of Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen has been a very active contributor to ASEAN regionalism.

Alongside political flexibility, ASEAN’s ongoing legalisation and institutionalisation process is a conscious diplomatic strategy that is intended to, and will, have permanence. It is not a collective whim or reaction but a set of long-term cooperation and integration measures that member states have adopted to deal with significant geopolitical exigencies.

ASEAN’s initial foray into legalisation and institutionalisation was tentative as diplomacy and flexibility were prioritised. The five founding members expressly chose to establish the organisation through the ASEAN Declaration (1967), a non-binding instrument. It was only after about a decade of cooperation that ASEAN adopted its first legally binding treaty, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (1976), at the first ASEAN Summit. At that Summit, the member states established the ASEAN Secretariat and expanded the scope of regional cooperation beyond security to include economic development. They also developed ASEAN’s institutional capacities to attain these goals.

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Through the years, as ASEAN grew with the membership of Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, and the fields of cooperation intensified, regional decision-making modalities remained staunchly politically flexible and non-legalistic. There was a marked preference for consultation and consensus rather than actual compliance with the organisation’s ever-growing body of laws and institutions, especially regarding economic integration. Only an estimated one-third of ASEAN instruments of cooperation were actually complied with in the organisation’s first 40 years.

By the mid-2000s it was recognised that continuing this situation would be a grave strategic error for ASEAN’s reputation and competitiveness. An appointed group of eminent persons tasked with assessing the organisation’s new directions through the ASEAN Charter made three recommendations.

They first advised that for ASEAN to fully realise its primary goal of economic, socio-cultural and political–security cooperation, the informal association needed to become a reliable and ‘structured intergovernmental organisation’ with legal obligations. ASEAN needed to be an entity comparable to other international organisations in an intensely legalised global order. This included taking on legal personality and pursuing legal endorsement of the fundamental values of the international community, human rights and democracy.

Second, they advised that ASEAN should be more actively visible in the international order to take advantage of the economic opportunities brought about by regional economic integration. A coherent economic bloc would attract more foreign investment and enable the region to compete against China and India.

Third, they noted that the overt lack of respect for rule of law and institutions not only tarnished ASEAN’s reputation but also prevented member states from reaping the expected rewards of cooperative endeavours.

Since ASEAN already possessed adequate hard and soft laws, member states simply needed to work on implementing and complying with these commitments in a timely fashion. Further, monitoring and dispute-settlement mechanisms needed to be established across all areas of regional cooperation. In particular, the ASEAN secretary-general and the secretariat were to monitor regional legal and institutional compliance.

These strategies formed the core of the ASEAN Charter as it mapped out the trajectory for the tri-pillared (political-security, economic and socio-cultural) ASEAN Community. In the first decade of this transition, there has been an unsurprising tendency to backslide due to path dependencies. Monitoring oversight has not been exercised by the ASEAN secretary-general or the secretariat, and none of the ASEAN dispute settlement mechanisms have yet been used.

In particular, enthusiasm for legalisation and institutionalisation has not yet emerged in national or ASEAN Secretariat departments that deal less directly with law or handle sensitive issues such as internal economic policies, forestry and agriculture. These departments are understandably more protectionist and are reluctant to move to a structure of rules and institutions. It is unsurprising therefore that the launch of the ASEAN Community was fraught with defensive justifications that the full attainment of community goals needed more time and resources beyond the formal deadline of 31 December 2015.

But ASEAN’s strategic legalisation and institutionalisation is not slated for failure — there are procedural and reputational safeguards that compel progress.

For one, the charter is ASEAN’s first constituent treaty that lays a strong foundation for compliance with regional laws and institutions. It is a permanent fixture in ASEAN regionalism unless it is superseded by a subsequent constituent treaty, which is unlikely due to the grave credibility costs in a highly legalised contemporary international order. The cornerstone ASEAN Community Vision 2025 document reinforces the norms articulated by the Charter.

If they default on the charter and other ASEAN laws, and fail to comply with regional agreements, ASEAN states will be unable to attain the economic profit promised by cooperation. This is in addition to the loss of goodwill and potential retaliatory action when such commitments are broken. Recalling that economic disputes are increasingly resolved through adjudicatory mechanisms, ASEAN’s economic partners would likely use the settlement mechanisms stipulated in ASEAN treaties rather than pursue lengthy diplomatic negotiations to resolve disagreements.

Today, network governance plays a central role in intra-ASEAN relations. A genuine reformative effort can be seen among the officers who work on ASEAN issues in the national ministries and the ASEAN Secretariat. For example, in customs procedures, officers are keen to regularise procedures in line with the rule of law and institutions. Networks of shared experiences among regional counterparts are increasingly built through capacity-building initiatives jointly organised by regional and external stakeholders. Even more encouraging has been the recent establishment of dedicated monitoring units in the ASEAN Secretariat to build each of the three pillars of the ASEAN Community.

The officers of ASEAN and its member states are demonstrating an increasing adherence to the rule of law despite considerable obstacles. Slow as the progress might be, the transformative power of law and institutions once they are set in motion cannot be ignored. Greater familiarity and usage will reinforce and bring more uniformity to regional legalisation and institutionalisation. As this strategy evolves, its particular characteristics will go on to define a unique new model of ASEAN regionalism in the global order.

Tan Hsien-Li is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for International Law, National University of Singapore.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Strategic diplomacy in Asia’.


ASEAN-50: From here on ASEAN Centrality must mean Internal Centrality

August 15, 2017

ASEAN-50: From here on ASEAN Centrality must mean Internal Centrality

by Tang Siew Mun and Jason Salim

In a rare moment of political unity, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) unhesitatingly and with unanimity  urged the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) to “comply fully with United Nations Security Council resolutions.”

Image result for ASEAN CentralityASEAN must be able to navigate through the storm of US-China rivalry in its own backyard


At the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Manila that ended on August 5, the grouping also asked Pyongyang to commit to “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.”

Many have touted this as a sign that the 50-year-old regional organisation has finally come of age as it wades into the high-stakes game of international security.

In retrospect, this is not the first time ASEAN has spoken out against North Korea’s efforts to develop and acquire nuclear weapons, a principled stance consistent with its Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone declaration adopted in 1971. However, some have accused ASEAN of having a track record of “all talk, no action.”

As ASEAN commemorates its golden jubilee, it would need to rectify its credibility deficit by backing up strong words with equally appropriate actions.

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More Action Less Talk

In the case of the Korean nuclear issue, the grouping could collectively take tangible actions to cut off North Korea’s business interests in the region and support other measures approved by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2371. A failure to follow up on this or any of its firm rhetoric would render any ASEAN declaration weak and toothless.

In fact, ASEAN’s privileged position as the convenor of East Asian cooperation can no longer be taken for granted. For decades now, ASEAN has been the leader and innovator in designing and leading pan-Asian collaborative frameworks such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (since 1994), the East Asian Summit (since 2005), and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (since 2010).

These fora have exemplified ASEAN’s long-standing desire to work with major and other middle powers outside the region for the security and stability of the region, but the regional organisation now faces an uphill task to accommodate the whims and wishes of these same powers.

In the face of such pressure, ASEAN must realise that the idea of “centrality” must mean more than merely being in the “centre of the action” or acting as organiser and chauffeur.

ASEAN can hold on to its vaunted centrality only if it continues to have the trust of the major powers as an honest and impartial interlocutor. At the same time, if ASEAN allows the interests of the major powers to solely dominate and overpower these fora’s agendas, these ASEAN-led processes would face the real threat of obsolescence, to the detriment of the region.

Moving forward, it may not be enough for ASEAN to be impartial. Impartiality often means neutrality, and that would lead to “silence.” ASEAN is hard-pressed to balance between the imperative of impartiality and being a relevant regional entity guided by long-standing principles. In other words, there is no point for ASEAN to be “at the centre” if centrality serves only to perpetuate the interests of the major powers at the expense of ASEAN’s own.

All 10 member states must be willing to let ASEAN speak with a clarion voice that may at times contradict some of the major powers. ASEAN should act and speak on an even keel with all of its dialogue partners and hold its own.

ASEAN serves two important purposes for its members. First, it is bound by the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As a grouping of mostly small states, the collective voices of 10 countries in unity and solidarity are more audible and louder than speaking individually — something ASEAN has more often than not succeeded in facilitating over the past 50 years.

Second, ASEAN allows member states to register their stance in a collective setting for situations that might not allow them to do so in individual capacities.

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ASEAN is the best strategic mouthpiece available for individual member states to speak out under the protective and safe umbrella of collective action. However, as commendable as ASEAN’s decision to take a firm stand on a security issue outside Southeast Asia may be, it should seek to avoid double standards particularly when it comes to intra-ASEAN security issues.

The Rohingya crisis, human trafficking and the growth of radical Muslim fundamentalism are just some of the lingering security issues closer to home in which ASEAN should take the lead in addressing.

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Although ASEAN centrality has almost always referred to ASEAN’s position relative to the “outside”, ASEAN should work hard to address the issue of “internal centrality.” There is no point in ASEAN gaining traction outside Southeast Asia when the grouping in effectively invisible within the region.

ASEAN has to address the critical issue of making itself matter to Southeast Asians, and let ASEAN’s citizens understand and own the concept of “community.”

Moving forward, the disconnect between ASEAN and Southeast Asians is one of the major challenges for ASEAN. Without support and stakeholdership from the people, the hard choices to make community-building work would be difficult, especially if leaders fall into the temptation of relapsing into nationalistic stances.

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This would require having the political courage to perhaps even selectively set aside ASEAN’s “most cherished” principle of non-interference for the sake of the common good.

If ASEAN is to be a community in the fullest and truest sense of the word, it has to be able to equate domestic security with regional security, and take collective action whenever necessary.

Outlining firm and principled stances towards external developments are all well and good, but cooperating on common security threats in tangible ways would make ASEAN even more relevant to the public. Let that be our shared vision for ASEAN as it trudges on towards the next 50 years, and the next 50. — TODAY

* Dr Tang Siew Mun and Jason Salim  at ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

ASEAN– New Challenges Ahead after 50 years

August 12, 2017

ASEAN– New Challenges Ahead after credible 50 years

by Dr. Munir Majid

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FIRST, let us give credit where it is due: 50 years of continued existence in half a century of challenge and change is a feat of achievement. ASEAN can consider that the cup is half full.

The problem with ASEAN is that not enough is known about it. And what is known is usually about where it has failed, like its failure to take a common stand or to propose creative cooperation in the South China Sea disputes.

Or its pusillanimity in removing non-tariff barriers (NTBs) which are seriously hindering ASEAN economic integration and establishment of a single market and production base.

The fact that so many things – the half-full cup – are happening on the ground, is lost. Taking just the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), how many Malaysians, for instance, appreciate there are over 1,000 of our companies all over ASEAN, taking advantage of regional growth against the frustrations of investment laws and domestic bureaucracies?

How many are aware of huge Thai companies like Charoen Pokphand (one of the largest private conglomerates in the world, employing 500,000 people across the globe) with big plans to make Malaysia its halal food hub?

Just imagine, Buddhist Thailand working in Muslim Malaysia to propel a fast-growing industry forward – despite whatever halal certification problems it might face in Indonesia, for instance – for its food products. Charoen Pokphand will find a way, as it has all over the world, since its establishment in 1921.

The point is, what is heard are the complaints. Inevitably, as these are louder than what is quietly achieved, with whatever difficulty, by the likes of Sime Darby or Gamuda Land or auto-parts company Ingress Corp Bhd.

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AirAsia Bhd, however loud and incessant its complaints, is now the largest low-cost airline in Asia, truly well-established in ASEAN.

The other side of the story, of course, is – the glass is half empty. The loud, big, private sector push is for ASEAN to strive for optimality.

This is where the great divide begins. Old ASEAN hand Bilahari Kausikan of Singapore once famously said ASEAN is a cow which some people expect to be a horse. The suggestion is, it cannot.

However, why not? Even if it cannot, is the cow fully-milked? Perhaps there should be a convergence between those who say the glass is half full and those who say it is half empty.

With respect to the AEC, there is great effort by the official ASEAN side to engage the private sector to forge cooperation, if not quite convergence. The AEC 2025 Blueprint clearly recognises the role of the private sector in the economic integration process.

In 2015, ASEAN Economic Ministers acknowledged there has to be concentrated effort to get NTBs reduced, and agreed with the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ASEAN-BAC) that the way forward is by concentrating on a few people-centric sectors – agri-food, healthcare, retail and e-commerce, and logistics.

In the middle of 2016, the ASEAN Trade Facilitation Joint Consultative Committee (ATF-JCC) was revived, with part of its remit being to form working groups with expert private sector entities to address NTBs in those four sectors with, additionally, the tourism sector.

In January this year, the ATF-JCC met in Bangkok and ASEAN-BAC was called to discuss the way forward. Some progress in terms of customs procedures was made just recently on how intra-ASEAN trade could be facilitated. But work on the specific, prioritised sectors has yet to begin.

This is part of the reason why, while there is cooperation between the official and private sectors, there is not quite convergence. Rate of progress: the process is not just slow. It is long, grinding and exhausting.

Beyond the AEC, more generally, there is great need to raise the profile of ASEAN among the people at large, especially the young, whose knowledge of what it does is lacking. It is like a close-kept secret. The top-down approach among those of a certain age has to change.

ASEAN’s young population have to be brought into the whole process, to energise it and to form the future that will be theirs. If ASEAN wants to bring them along into that future, it is absolutely essential to form an ASEAN Youth Consultative body to hear from the young what they want of and for ASEAN.

If ASEAN does not do this, it will be wasting one of its most valuable assets – its demographic vitality. They can take on the digital world.

After we recognise credit should be given to ASEAN for what it has achieved, it is a totally pro-ASEAN thing to do to highlight the formidable challenges it faces going forward. The biggest is happening now: digitisation.

ASEAN has not quite addressed what is now popularly dubbed Economy 4.0. ASEAN talks about the opportunities of e-commerce and, correctly, intones that the trading platforms, payments settlement and connectivity have to be in place to drive it. But even as this being talked about – and inadequate progress is made – the sweep of the digital economy might have uncomfortable consequences for ASEAN if it does not prepare itself.

The fourth industrial revolution is more comprehensive than just e-commerce. There are vast opportunities for new industries and services, as well as for greater productivity. But there are also grave challenges to employment and skills development.

ASEAN needs to fashion clear policies on education and training – with emphasis on cognitive skills – and retraining, and on employment displacement. Yet the ASEAN mantra to attract investment remains low-cost of production. But will the manufacturing industries come to low-labour cost Indonesia or Myanmar in the new digital economy?

Unemployment and unemployability could seriously affect these countries, particularly their micro, small and medium enterprises sector. Serious socio-economic problems could scupper ASEAN economic integration, indeed threaten regional cohesion.

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The time to act is now. ASEAN really has not that much time to celebrate its creditable 50 years.

ASEAN@50–Finding the Right Equilibrium

August 6, 2017

ASEAN@50–Finding the Right Equilibrium

by Syed Hamid Albar

Image result for Founding Fathers of ASEANThe Founding ASEAN Leaders on August 8, 1967

ASEAN is a rule-based regional organisation, but the challenge now is to introduce mechanisms compelling member states to play by the rules.

ASEAN embraces its golden jubilee this year. The time is right to understand what worked and what we could have done better, and how do we move ahead as one cohesive alliance against the backdrop of ever-shifting global dynamics.

Following the failures of the Association of South-East Asia (ASA) and Maphilindo  Greater Malayan Federation (MAPHILINDO), have the aims and visions of the five original ASEAN member states which signed the Bangkok Declaration on August 8, 1967 to chart a new future for the region been fulfilled?

The crisp answer would be yes. With 10 members now, the coalition has weathered the ups and downs of member state relationships anchored upon a set of core values.

We call this the “Asean Way”, striking a balance between consensual decision-making and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs in a show of mutual respect.
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We can take pride that the ASEAN region is principally stable and peaceful. The measured pace has helped it to attain this position and ASEAN has done well, taking into account the fact that the region is a microcosm of various religions, languages, ethnicities and cultures.

However, the inter-subjective structure of ASEAN has proven to be a stumbling block in resolving potential flash points or conflicts that could destabilise the region and ASEAN unity due to exposure to geopolitical happenings such as overlapping land and maritime claims, China’s advancing presence and the alleged “cold war” between the United States and China.

Additionally, member countries do not appear to share a common view on what is democracy or human rights. ASEAN is still sensitive on the question of non-interference and its treatment of human rights issues. Reticence to take a firm collective stand, for example on the Rohingya issue in Myanmar, has been a thorn on our side, questioning the very values that ASEAN stands for.

There is undoubtedly a need for deeper examination on challenges confronting ASEAN as it embraces democracy and economic liberalism. Continued denial on this subject will not bode well for sustaining Asean’s credibility and integrity.

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The ASEAN Economic Community has been firmly established and an integrated people-centred ASEAN has been declared, based on the three pillars of ASEAN under the Bali Concords I & II. But what do these mean?

Has ASEAN been able to build a cohesive and united body, consistent with its Charter? Has it succeeded in building trust and understanding in order to create an ASEAN identity?

For too long, we have made this an exclusive “talk shop” platform for government-to-government dealings, but the time has come for us to recognise that as a political platform, ASEAN must take sustainable and constructive steps to make a firmer collective stand on issues affecting the region.

The institutional and government-centred character of the past must be shed to make way for inclusiveness and relevance to civil society.

These are important to resolve as we have seen how different member states have varying interpretations of the relationship between the individual, state and civil society, and sometimes, the core values of freedom.

Due to rigidly sticking to the issue of sovereignty and non-interference as a regional organisation, ASEAN has been, in critical instances, slow to give its collective or common response to natural disasters like the tsunami, Cyclone Nargis and the haze. If these were a test of our effectiveness, we failed, and it is sometimes quite a wonder how member countries are able to rise above conflicting areas to register healthy political and economic growth.

Malaysia has used the slogan of unity and diversity as a source of its strength. ASEAN must do the same. Otherwise, the differences and diversities of ASEAN can be a threat to peace, stability and security.

There are also frustrations about the rigid application and inflexible processes of ASEAN’s decision-making and yet, we have witnessed how hope and optimism steered the evolution of this organisation.

Beginning its initial journey based on a loose framework of rules, over the years, ASEAN has grown into a full-fledged legal and rule-based regional organisation guided by its Charter. The challenge moving forward will be to introduce mechanisms and enforcement tools compelling member states to play by the rules.

It is encouraging that ASEAN leaders, previously criticised for leaning towards “golf diplomacy”, are more willing to come to the table to confront intractable issues. However, discussions alone will not be enough.

In grappling with complexities the future will bring, we must form meaningful responses to the needs of a changing world. Our actions must not just resonate with governments but also with civil society from all walks of life.

As leaders, we must have the courage to act with gravitas and gumption in the interest of the greater good for the continued growth of our region.

The value proposition for standing together as one coalition is strong. With a total population of 628 million and a combined gross domestic product of US$3 trillion (RM12.9 trillion), the ASEAN region today is a formidable global power bloc from economic, political and security perspectives.

We stand on the cusp of an era that will see Asean leadership make its way into the global order. Thus, in mulling the existential narrative for ASEAN over the next 10 years, we must build greater resilience in our region and tackle existing challenges with all the seriousness we can muster.

ASEAN cannot afford to be lulled into a false sense of security in past glories. Instead, we must take a brave, no-nonsense approach to finding that point of equilibrium that will further elevate our standing amid new realities in the international system.

*Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar was former Foreign Minister. This is one of a special series of articles to mark the 50th anniversary of the regional grouping by the ASEAN members of the Asia News Network. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords:Asia News Network , Asean 50