Fulfilling the ASEAN dream

Updated: 2017-05-08 07:41

By Deng Yanzi in Manila(HK Edition)

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Fulfilling the ASEAN dream

Fidel Ramos (fourth left), former president of the Philippines, with other delegates at the 14th ASEAN Leadership Forum in Manila on April 28. In his speech, Ramos said that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should take the lead in delivering peace and prosperity to the region. Photos by Kate Yau / China Daily

Forum hears how the bloc can be an example for other regions and organizations as well as play a bigger role on the world stage.

In the five decades since the Bangkok Declaration was signed on Aug 8, 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has made tremendous progress.

As the 10-member bloc commemorates its 50th anniversary, it should lead the region in driving economic progress and maintaining peace as an inclusive organization, urged former Philippine president Fidel Ramos at the 14th ASEAN Leadership Forum in Manila on April 28.

"There's a rosy future ahead of us. Let ASEAN take the lead in trying to maintain peace, the rule of law, stability and eventually prosperity in our part of the Earth," Ramos said in his speech.

"Other regions and organizations, please follow," he said. "We are probably the best of regional groups in terms of the economic dimension, the social-cultural aspects despite our diversity, and our political security experience."

To be able to lead, the bloc must strive for a larger role on the world stage.

In his keynote address to the forum, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said: "We continue to pursue ASEAN's greater international engagement to advance our common interest, be it in the inclusive and innovative growth of our economies."

Fulfilling the ASEAN dream

Hosted by the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (ASLI), a Malaysian think tank, and co-organized by the Chamber of Commerce of the Philippine Islands, the April 28 forum was held in conjunction with the 30th ASEAN Summit, also in Manila, which ran from April 26 to 29.

The forum looked to the future of the bloc regarding its economic, political and social prospects, under the theme of Advancing Partnerships, Prospering Together in a New World Economy.

ASEAN had a combined GDP of $2.6 trillion in 2015.

Ramos said he hopes ASEAN can keep up its economic growth momentum and remain globally competitive and resilient in light of worldwide uncertainties.

He also stressed the importance of economic integration.

"ASEAN economic integration must continue to be a top priority for ASEAN leaders in order for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) to remain on track," Ramos said.

The AEC was founded at the end of 2015, and aims to build a highly integrated and inclusive economic community.

Pundits and policymakers at the forum highlighted the digital economy as an opportunity for ASEAN to achieve better economic integration, especially in engaging businesses in less developed parts of the region.

"Having looked at the regional economy and international economy for years, I have seen ICT - information and communication technology - as a possible great equalizer in business," said Cielito Habito, a professor of economics at Ateneo de Manila University.

ICT allows micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) to strengthen their participation in the market, Habito explained. "Because of ICT and the Internet, small businesses including single persons can access the international market," he added.

Cambodia's Minister of Commerce Pan Sorasak also believes the digital economy presents "a natural opportunity for ASEAN as a whole, and has the potential to be the driver of integration across the region".

However, he said the lack of infrastructure for ICT is a major challenge, as is the inadequate financial support for e-commerce startups.

Sorasak called for the establishment of an e-commerce sector that is as inclusive as possible among member economies.

Mustapa Mohamed, Malaysia's minister of international trade and industry, shared the Malaysian experience in enabling an inclusive digital economy.

In March, Malaysia partnered with China's e-commerce giant Alibaba to set up a Digital Free Trade Zone. Alibaba's first overseas "e-hub" aims to promote the growth of small and medium enterprises involved in e-commerce.

"The challenge in Malaysia is how to get MSMEs to respond to all these opportunities. The digital economy cannot be achieved unless you address the grassroots issues in the rural parts of the country," Mustapa said.

The digital economy is also bringing ASEAN closer to its partners and the world as a competitive and inclusive economy.

"We have not preserved ASEAN purely for ASEAN people, and we have opened it up to the rest of the world. I hope the digital economy can push this further," said Jose Luis Yulo Jr, president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Philippine Islands.

For closer engagement with the global economy, industry leaders encourage ASEAN members to foster stronger partnerships in Asia, including with new economic powerhouses the Chinese mainland and India.

Hong Kong, as one of ASEAN's closest trading partners in the region, is also stepping up its ties with the bloc as the two parties move toward the final stage of free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations.

"The two sides are working toward the objectives of concluding the FTA negotiation shortly and signing the agreement within this year, so that businessmen and investors of the 11 parties can reap the benefits as soon as possible," said Philip Yung Wai-hung, permanent secretary for commerce and economic development in Hong Kong.

"We can see a very high degree of complementarity in the trade and investment relationship between Hong Kong and ASEAN, and we are keen to establish closer ties with ASEAN particularly to echo our central government's Belt and Road Initiative," Yung said.

The Belt and Road Initiative, put forward by China in 2013, aims to improve economic ties along the ancient Silk Road routes. It is expected to bring great benefits to ASEAN trade and infrastructure.

Hong Kong positions itself as a gateway to facilitate ASEAN's further engagement with the Chinese mainland. In 2016, about 12 percent of trade activities between the Chinese mainland and ASEAN were channeled through Hong Kong, according to Yung.

"Partnering with Hong Kong would provide synergy for realizing the opportunity brought by the Belt and Road Initiative," he said.

Hong Kong is well-placed to provide a rich talent pool of lawyers, engineers and financial professionals, as well as their deep knowledge of doing business in the Chinese mainland, he explained.

Yulo of the Chamber of Commerce of the Philippine Islands noted that the AEC complements all member economies without leaving "losers" behind. He made the point that in the European Union, countries such as Greece and Spain can be seen as trapped economically on the losing side of the competition.

"ASEAN thought ahead of the EU, because we are conscious of the fact that we can't have one country that overshadows the others," Yulo said. "We don't engage in 'winner takes all'."

He suggested that moderate globalism, or "ASEAN-ism" as he called it, should be the new norm for world economy.

"ASEAN is trying to invent a new manner of becoming economically prosperous. That is the ASEAN dream," Yulo concluded.


Fulfilling the ASEAN dream

Speakers at the forum discussed plans including improving digital infrastructure and supporting small businesses.

(HK Edition 05/08/2017 page19)