The Search for Alternative Regionalism in Southeast Asia

By Chavez, Jenina Joy | Women in Action, December 2006 | Go to article overview

The Search for Alternative Regionalism in Southeast Asia


Chavez, Jenina Joy, Women in Action


When the Association of Southeast Asia, Nations (ASEAN) was formed in 1967, the original members did not have all a priori vision of what they, wanted the Association to be. It would take another 30 years before the vision of an ASEAN Community (1) would emerge. ASEAN members are now preparing to flesh this out in an ASEAN Charter. (2)

The ASEAN Charter has drawn a lot of interest among civil society and social movements who see the process as an opportunity to bring to the regional arena aspects of their advocacy that are regional in nature. Throughout 2006, many civil society groups expressed their aspirations for regionalism by submitting inputs to the Charter. Despite limited engagement with ASEAN in the past, the submissions were put together with relative ease because they are based on existing local, national and global advocacy.

It remains to be seen to what extent civil society input will be included in the Charter. ASEAN has largely been inaccessible to civil society, and is not known for initiatives that directly target broad sections of the ASEAN population. Many groups therefore question the value of engaging the ASEAN Charter process, or ASEAN itself.

The skepticism with ASEAN, however, is not generalised to the idea of regionalism and regional integration. Outside of Southeast Asia, there are many attempts at regional cooperation and integration. Recent examples from South America suggest that it may be possible to have "an integration of, and for, the peoples." (3)

This idea of alternative regionalism provides the motivation to engage ASEAN. Civil society members' approach to ASEAN should be the same as their approach to their government, because they lay as much claim to what it does in ASEAN as in their country. With ASEAN, two major weaknesses provide the starting point for engagement. First, ASEAN has failed to identify a clear vision to guide regional integration. Second, ASEAN has also failed to act appreciably on issues requiring regional response. Addressing these weaknesses would he the first step towards building a regional community.

Integration without a Clear Vision

At 40, ASEAN is considered one of the most established regional groupings in the world. However, this staying power veils the absence of a clear vision for the region. ASEAN still has no strong identification with or articulation of regional interest despite its years. It has achieved success in cozy diplomatic relations that serves the interest and provides comfort to the political leadership of its members, but accomplishes little for its peoples. When it started to take economic cooperation seriously, objectives were limited to developing the region as a platform for third country exports and to attracting foreign investments into the region through trade liberalisation. Broader objectives beyond opening up were left behind. Initial dreams of regional import substitution or the development of regional production bases were abandoned. Most regional initiatives cater to big business, but there were no projects directly targeting basic producers and workers. As a result, ASEAN has yet to establish itself as a popular concept, and failed to elaborate its rhetoric to popular consciousness.

In its first 25 years, political security rather than economic cooperation had been ASEAN's main focus. A voluntary preferential trading arrangement introduced in the late 1970s covered a measly two percent and five percent of intra-ASEAN trade in 1980 and 1986, respectively. (4) It was not until 1993 that a more comprehensive ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), through the Common Effective Preferential Tariff (CEPT) Scheme, was established as the key economic project of ASEAN. AFTA's goal is the complete abolition of tariffs for the ASEAN-6 (5) by 2010 and 2015 for the newer members, with flexibility on some sensitive products until 2018. To date, more than 99% of tariff lines in the inclusion list of ASEAN-6 are within the 0-5% range; almost two-thirds of which have 0% tariff. …

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