In unity there is strength. Now if only regional unity weren’t so complicated.
The European Union continues to show the world the difficulties of regional integration. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is just embarking on the road to integration.
There is an ASEAN charter that is being drawn up to pave the way for a regional legal entity like the EU. The charter will end the ASEAN policy of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. How binding the provisions of the charter will be remains to be seen.
Getting ASEAN members to comply with charter provisions can be tough. ASEAN cannot even get Myanmar to speed up democratic reforms. Yangon would rather give up chairing ASEAN than give in to demands for democratic reforms including the release of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
ASEAN has in fact set aside its policy of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs by openly interfering in Myanmar, but the junta has so far done little more than jerk around its ASEAN neighbors with promises of reforms.
Even economic integration has been complicated by the different levels of economic development and market openness of ASEAN members.
The grouping includes a kingdom fueled by oil revenue, Brunei; one of the world’s last communist states, Vietnam; one of the world’s most transparent and efficient governments with a sophisticated market, Singapore; as well as several developing economies riddled with corruption, bad governance (that’s us) and, in the case of Myanmar, strong-arm rule.
Businessmen from countries outside the region have complained about ASEAN’s slowness in coming up with common product standards and tariff systems.
Think of what will happen when ASEAN attempts to circulate a common currency like the euro.
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Yet the region cannot give up on integration. It may have to focus first on the most doable aspects, such as regional marketing of tourism destinations. But it must move toward closer cooperation in many aspects.
The tiniest member of ASEAN, Singapore, likes to look at the big picture and is one of the most aggressive in promoting regional integration. Think of the city-state, and think of the entire ASEAN as a single market and trading partner. Naturally, the bigger market has the greater bargaining power.
Competing with Asian giants China and India, small developing countries like the Philippines may not stand a chance either in attracting foreign investments or marketing exports.
Joining forces with the rest of ASEAN, the Philippines can have greater leverage in trade and investments.
Several ASEAN members are already seeing the benefits of joint tourism promotion. There are tour packages for trips from Bali in Indonesia to Singapore to several destinations in Thailand and Malaysia.
Similar packages are being developed among Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and now Cambodia, where Siem Reap has become one of the top tourist destinations.
The Philippines, separated from these countries by the South China Sea, has been left out in the joint tourism promotion.
Travel agents complain that the Philippines cannot even standardize room rates to be competitive with counterparts in the region.
Worse, the Philippines is still trying to live down its reputation for harboring pirates and Islamist terrorists who kidnap tourists from Palawan to resort islands in Malaysia.
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ASEAN has better chances of cooperating on security matters. The bombings perpetrated by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) from Bali to Jakarta and Metro Manila have shown the grievous toll of terrorism and how much it can retard economic development.
The problem here is the weakest link — meaning us. ASEAN leaders and diplomats will probably be too polite to say it, although they will talk if they won’t be named.
But there have been enough reports of ASEAN officials and analysts observing that the acute lack of resources of the Philippine military and law enforcement agencies as well as corruption and generally ineffectual governance are among the biggest hindrances to the regional battle against terrorism.
All those factors allowed JI, supported by the Abu Sayyaf and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (and no, those aren’t MILF renegades) to set up training camps in Mindanao. They have also allowed JI members mostly from Indonesia, including the two suspected masterminds of the Bali bombings in 2002, to flee their countries and resettle in the Philippines.
Those militants are suspected to be responsible for the bombings that rocked General Santos and Cotabato cities the other day, killing seven.
The two cities are on a list of possible targets of bomb attacks during the ASEAN summit.
The list was reportedly drawn up by Australia and most likely was shared with other Western governments that have issued travel advisories on the Philippines (the US calls them "warden messages") during the summit.
Disagreements on regional security cooperation may crop up when it comes to the extent of linkages with countries outside ASEAN, particularly the United States, China and Japan.
Malaysia does not want the region to become dependent on the US for security while Singapore has a more pragmatic approach in dealing with the world’s lone superpower.
The Philippines, no matter how loud the nationalist rhetoric, is unable to wean itself from dependence on US military assistance in fighting the terror threat.
Still, regional security cooperation is moving faster than more ambitious objectives related to economic integration.
This does not mean regional cooperation in other aspects will always be a hard slog. ASEAN will have to continue trying, until national interests allow regional objectives to advance faster.
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RUMOR MONGERS: It’s a measure of The STAR’s success that certain individuals who want a piece of the action are now spreading rumors that they are buying the controlling stake in the paper and installing a new set of officers.
The paper’s majority shareholders, who own more than half of the shares, are about to put up a large sign declaring, "Not for sale" and "No vacancy."