Update on ASEAN and East Asian Integration; (First of 2 Parts)

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Byline: Fidel V. Ramos

RELATIVELY unnoticed by the business sector and decision-makers - surely because of the more sensational news on alleged corruption in high places, the rice crisis, the aexecutive privilegea controversy, the dispute over the Spratlys, and PGMA's declining ratings - was a recent aInternational Conference on the Implications of the ASEAN Charter for East Asian Integration.a Last March 12, this important gathering took place at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza under the auspices of the AIM Policy Center, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, UP Asian Center, Philippine Business Leaders Forum, and RPDEV, with the World Bank, Business Mirror and Business World in support. The conference sought to:

1. aCascadea the ASEAN Charter and facilitate greater public understanding of its implications.

2. Assess ASEAN countries' competitiveness and readiness for deeper regional integration.

3. Identify the new opportunities for, and potential obstacles to, East Asian integration, and equip stakeholders with policy options and alternative strategies.

4. Generate ideas for more active private sector involvement in the regional integration process. Among the eminent presentors were Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo; former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino; Bert Hofman, WB Country Director; Klaus Preschle, KAF Philippine Representative; Ambassador Rosario Manalo, Chairperson of the High Level Task Force on the drafting of the ASEAN Charter; DTI Senior Undersecretary Thomas Aquino; Dr. Michael Clancy, Chairman, Philippine Business Leaders Forum; and Dr. Federico Macaranas, Executive Director of the AIM Policy Center.

ASEAN at a crossroadsIn spite of the year-long ballyhoo trumpeting ASEAN's achievements - admittedly substantial, particularly as the continuing core of such influential blocs as APEC, AsiaEurope Meetings (ASEM), and East Asia Economic Grouping (EAEG) - some experts, academics and thinktankers view ASEAN with a big dose of skepticism. Agence France Presse on November 16, 2007 reported: aForty years after its founding, ASEAN is still searching for credibility and clout, analysts say - unable to exert influence on Myanmar and unsure if its free-market ambitions will come to pass.... With the addition of Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam ASEAN is now an unlikely collection of monarchies, dictatorships, budding democracies, and socialist regimes. Given this diversity of governance, culture, language, and religion, a policy of keeping out of each other's internal affairs has enabled the group to stick together, many say - but has also become its biggest handicap.a

In its 2007 study on regional cooperation and integration, the Boao Forum for Asia stressed: aCorruption, in most developing countries, has eaten up scarce resources meant to alleviate poverty.... To address these economic and social ills, good governance is imperative.aIndeed, ASEAN is at a crossroads. And its transition from a traditional to a more proactive regional institution requires a shift in its focus from road blocks to building blocks. ASEAN's style of decision-making by consensus has served ASEAN well, and should be preserved. However, consensus should aid - and not impede - ASEAN's cohesiveness and effectiveness. Inevitably, as the range of activities within ASEAN increases, ASEAN must adopt innovative but enforceable decisionmaking mechanisms beyond mere consensus. Effective decision-making demands political will among member-states - if ASEAN is to assume a larger role in regional and global affairs.

Exercising communal political willAs the keynote speaker at that international conference, I emphasized that if ASEAN is to adapt to changing realities, it must reform its traditional decision-making. All throughout our deliberations in the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), we took for granted that ASEAN would function - not in a vacuum - but in a strategic crossroads of the world, where the interests of the great powers intersect and compete. …