FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

In the beginning, there was only the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO), an unabashe­dly pro-western military alliance modeled after the NATO. That might be a quaint Cold War association, but at least it was never criticized for being unclear in its purpose.

The SEATO was eventually disbanded, for reasons so obvious. The non-aligned movement of emerging nations took the wind out of that patently pro-western alliance. The winding down of the war in Indochina, détente with the Soviet Union and the entry of China as a major player in regional affairs made the alliance obsolete.

In the vacant space left by SEATO, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was conceived. For many years after its founding, however, the ASEAN was an association without clear purpose. No one was interested in collective defense. The idea of an economic community was premature. It could not be called a forum for democratizing societies since, during those years, most of the member states were ruled by autocrats.

Since, in the beginning, most of the ASEAN economies were staunchly protectionist, a regional free market seemed an anachronism. Trade between the region’s economies was negligible since most of the countries produced the same things and traded them elsewhere.

Perhaps the idea of a regional economic community might have prospered earlier, had ASEAN remained a small association with more or less like-minded countries.

The ASEAN Six (Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines) could have moved faster on integration. In fact, in the nineties, the core ASEAN countries did agree on a Southeast Asian growth area (EAGA) based on opening up channels of commerce in the zone between southern Philippines, the northern islands of Indonesia, Brunei and insular Malaysia.

But ASEAN chose to expand ahead of deepening regionalism. Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia joined the association, as did a new country, East Timor. The variances between the member states grew wider, the disparities greater.

The core ASEAN countries waited for the socialist Indochinese states and the reclusive Myanmar to begin opening up their economies before talk of some form of regional market integration could begin to move. Two decades into the process of integration, however, the roadblocks remain telling.

The goal of ASEAN is to replicate the experience of the European economic community. The Eurozone has not achieved a high degree of fiscal harmonization, shared market governance and a regional parliament. The euro is a currency shared by most members of this zone. It is managed by a European Central Bank.

Europe and Southeast Asia, however, are about as different as any two regions of the world can be.

The Europeans share a common civilization, whose fonts are classical Greek thought, Roman law and Christianity. They might have been incessantly fighting wars among themselves for centuries, but they have a shared cultural heritage: rationalist philosophy, classical music and an appreciation for individual freedom.

Southeast Asia, by contrast, is the universe in microcosm.

Although historically an area of active commerce, the region is also the intersection of all the world’s religions. Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity animate the many colorful cultures of this region.

We have no shared writing system. We were not shaped by any singular doctrine. We never coexisted under the same empire, enforcing the same civil code.

Most of the modern nation-states in the region were formed during the age of colonial occupation. Indonesia was the Dutch holding, Malaysia the British and the Philippines the Spanish. East Timor was the Portuguese enclave.

The mainland countries, on the other hand, are the remains of small empires. Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos were ruled by kings. Myanmar, for its part, is a mad assembly of ethnic groups forced together by the fact of British occupation.

There are industries that will benefit from a regional common market. Carmakers, for instance, would benefit from manufacturing in one ASEAN country and selling to the whole region.

There are economic sections that will likely be hurt by the progress of a regional market. The Philippines, for instance, with its notoriously inefficient agriculture, has a higher cost of production for nearly every crop there is. Free trade will put great pressure on our agriculture.

We also have the highest power rates in the region. Unless this fact, and the prospect of power shortages, are solved, industries could migrate out of our economy to neighbors with both cheaper power and cheaper labor — not to mention greater ease of doing business. Many Filipino companies, anticipating a common market, have beat the gun and moved investments out to our neighbors.

The Philippines was once the brightest star of this part of the world. Unless we do real reforms quickly (not the nondescript “reforms” this administration loves to boast about), a regional common market could reduce us to the Sick Man of Southeast Asia — an economy with a poorly trained workforce, expensive power and exasperating red tape. One is tempted to add: an insane political system.

Sure, there are lingering security concerns in the region. The competing territorial claims in the south China Sea are urgent concerns for the Philippines and Vietnam. But they are not really concerns of most of the other partners, especially not pro-Beijing Cambodia and Myanmar.

There are areas where the region, as a bloc, could influence the rest of the world. After the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, the next biggest source of oxygen the world needs are the Southeast Asian rainforests.

Strangely, protecting our rainforest and negotiating with the rest of the world as a bloc to conserve them has not been prominent in the ASEAN agenda.












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