2011 Aug 02
August 2, 2011

ASEAN integration: A long way to go

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Following the success of the 44th ASEAN ministerial meeting, leaders of the group’s 10 member states need to ask questions about the goals of integration and to what extent the concept of integration is to be developed.

One of the considerable facts that should not be overlooked by the ASEAN countries is the case of the European Union (EU), the leading regional organization of states, which is currently challenged by its most promising realm: the economy.

Following Greece’s painstaking new bailout package agreed by EU leaders several weeks ago, there is now a strong indication that Italy will be the next victim in the domino effect, together with Portugal, Spain and Ireland.

In 2010, Brussels injected ¤500 billion (US$719.9 billion) to help Greece withstand the crisis, which many believe emanated from the subprime mortgage failure in the United States in 2008.

The conundrum of financial hardship, thus, remains unresolved in both the US, which is now facing a difficult battle over its national debt crisis, and the eurozone, highlighted in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland.

One year after the bailout and an extra ¤12 billion later, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has failed to resuscitate the Hellenic Republic, which is dealing with what The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls a “clash of generations”, wherein the youth today begrudgingly bear the responsibility bestowed upon them from the current elders in power.

Consequently, the arguable clash between generations can also be seen as the seed that ignited political unrest in Greece recently.

Shifting the focus of attention to the capital of European regionalism, it is quite obvious to observers that numerous EU member states signify the reluctance, or perhaps dilemma, of whether they agree to support their collapsing co-members. Only France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel seem eager to defend the cohesiveness of the region.

In order to understand the lesson here, we have to look deeper and comprehend that although Greece is the one facing a real sense of crisis both economically and politically, it is actually European economic identity with its single currency that faces the real threat.

With Italy predicted to be engulfed into the “shrinking club”, the supremacy of the euro will undoubtedly be shaken.

It’s a rather different picture regarding the regional organization, ASEAN. South East Asia’s regional bloc was established in 1967, and is intent to achieve a goal, (possibly an overly optimistic goal), of incresing the level of integration by 2015 in the realms of security, culture and economy.

Achieving regional integration on the basis of culture is highly dependent upon whether it is regarded as acceptable for citizens of Southeast Asia’s states.

Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN secretary-general, is successfully playing his role as the caretaker of the regional organization during this integration process.

In the field of education, for instance, the seeds of regional identity have only so far emerged among higher educational institutions, as evidenced by universities that have slowly moved toward an agreeable mechanism of a regional credit transfer system called ACTS (ASEAN credit transfer system).

However, the agreed method, just like any other ASEAN development, remains known only to those directly involved.

From the economic perspective, ASEAN member states are diverse in terms of how big a piece of the regional pie each gets to enjoy. Singapore and Brunei lead the per capita income scale, with $62,100 and $51,600 respectively, leaving Laos with only $986.

Also, taking into account the homogenous economy with the majority driven by foreign direct investments and local consumption, neighboring countries become each other’s competitors rather than partners seeking complementarity vis-à-vis their products and commodities.

Furthermore, the region is now exposed to free-trade agreements with China, which have sparked fears among small business owners.

The 2015 goal seems even more unrealistic if the current domestic tensions in Thailand, (including the Cambodia-Thailand dispute over the Preah Vihear temple); horizontal conflicts in the Philippines with the radical Moro group; and Malaysia’s superficial political freedom are seriously considered.

At the same time, ASEAN’s current chair, Indonesia, is preoccupied with a few problems in its own backyard, such as poverty, corruption and religious violence.

In addition, several ASEAN member states are involved in wrangling over the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea with China, widely predicted to become the next global power.

Politically, ASEAN does not possess the necessary prerequisites for cohesive regional integration in the same way as the EU. Given ASEAN’s principle of non-intervention, combined with a lack of political will and commitment from its member states, the regional arrangement seem to be far away from its target on wider integration.

Such a message was implied in Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s opening statement: “We must make ASEAN matter to our people.”

It stands testimony to the fact that in its 44 years of existence, ASEAN promotes a political agenda instead of a sense of belonging within a regional population of more than 300 million people.

Consequently, the ASEAN identity campaign, which highlights the ten member states’ struggles to fully align themselves to the goal of a greater integrated region, is either hard to measure or simply far from residing in the hearts of the people living in ASEAN’s respective countries. They do not wear regional spectacles as do their European counterparts.

With no regional identity at stake, ASEAN must honestly be willing to accept the fact that even its role model, the EU, had to take a long and winding road toward integration.

Learning form the EU’s challenges, ASEAN may have to reconsider its aspiration of becoming an “ASEAN Community” in 2015.

The writer, an alumnus of Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) to the United States, works at the office of international affairs, Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta. –Heru Prama Yuda, Yogyakarta, Jakarta Post