Crossroads (Towards Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 16 August 2017


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

This mid-centennial celebration honors our country in a special way, for, by a lucky turn in the duties of rotation, the Philippines is the association’s chairman during such a special year.

Much has been accomplished by ASEAN. But much more can be accomplished given that there are many open avenues for deepening ASEAN’s progress through economic cooperation and economic integration as a market.

The ASEAN dream: community. At its mid-century mark of life as an association, ASEAN is nursing a large and hopeful agenda of future cooperation. Most of it is in the nature of economic cooperation, further cementing the economic community that it had worked on to visualize the future.

In fact, there is a name for it, “An ASEAN Economic Community.”  Through a number of vehicles for cooperation, we hear much discussion within ASEAN of free trade area and economic union. All of these are phases of it.

Conference on security and geopolitics.  Given these thoughts, one would think that the future of economic cooperation issues would be foremost in the minds of those who think much about what comes next for ASEAN.

I had occasion to listen to a conference on ASEAN at 50: The Way Forward, held in Manila just a week ago. The conference is part of the celebration of the 50th year of ASEAN.

The meeting was essentially about the future of ASEAN. Speakers addressed the current economic challenges and opportunities, the emerging economic landscape given the apparent retreat toward protectionism, security issues immediately facing the region, and important global issues facing ASEAN.

The participants to the meeting, however, were mainly dominated by experts on foreign affairs, on politics, national security issues, and diplomacy. There were established businessmen and a few who had participated in economic ministries.

How I wish the conference dealt more on examining the future economic tasks and prospects rather than on geopolitical and national security issues.

A focus on economic issues of the future, though very difficult in the current framework, would yield much more positive outcome on the prospects of ASEAN. The discussion of security issues brings us in the realm of geopolitics and other concerns that still divides ASEAN and tends to weaken its closeness.

The strength of ASEAN. What makes ASEAN strong is its ability to get its members to follow a common path on those economic issues that unite it. The amount of economic agreements forged through the years have broadened and created a web of activities that is far deeper than it was possible to imagine before.

Today there is much more trade and movements of goods and cross-investments among the country members today. The region has a much stronger capacity to attract foreign capital from the world as a single market. That market has grown by virtue of domestic growth of all the members of ASEAN as well as the increased memberships that it has attracted in the course of years.

The achievement of building a large economic community is a powerful magnet for inviting the attention of other countries in pursuing economic relations with ASEAN This has a positive effect on other aspects of ASEAN’s standing, matters beyond economics and business.

Thus, we see today that ASEAN meetings also attract the attention of leaders of other countries that seek a common front to exchange views and possibly engage it for potential agreements on important issues, including political and other issues.

How it all began. Let us not forget how ASEAN’s relative clout had all begun. ASEAN was founded in 1967 when nervous tensions were looming all over the Asian continent. The Vietnam war was raging. Only a decade before, most of the original founding members were almost locked in tight animosity against each other – the product of colonial legacies and the independence struggles of each.

For nearly 10 years of existence, ASEAN was mainly the domain of discussions of the diplomats and security leaders. The ASEAN club was a meeting mainly of the foreign ministers. It was trapped in the helplessness of discussing security issues and geopolitical problems over which the countries had little control, being poor, developing countries in a big, wide world of great powers.

Yet the foreign ministers and their diplomats kept talking among themselves, without cementing ASEAN any further.

Then in 1975, at the height of the energy crisis and the food security worries within the region, the economic ministers were urged by their heads of government to take action. They met in succession to establish a machinery for economic negotiations.

The first meeting of the heads of state of ASEAN took place in Bali in February, 1976 and, through the ASEAN Concord that the leaders concluded in that Indonesian island, the ASEAN heads of government gave a mandate to their economic ministers to set up a machinery for negotiations and immediately to find ways to conclude economic agreements within ASEAN.

The economic ministers divided the work by setting up five committees that was chaired by each member country — trade; agriculture and food; industry; energy and forestry; and banking and finance.

That was the game changer within ASEAN. The economic ministers kept meeting to speed up setting a machinery for discussion. There were then five ASEAN members — Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. They took turns meeting in every capital every semester to expedite their work. Each country was responsible for one of the committees and set up their respective work program.

Diligently, the working committees chaired by each member country undertook their own tasks to find ways of creating economic agreements. In the meantime, too, they set up a central secretariat in Jakarta.

Patiently and through the years, the working committees tried to engage the countries to come up with economic covenants in their specific areas. The economic ministers, in the meantime, supervised the overall work of agreements being fostered.

Although there were agreements that happened instantly, the more substantial and important pacts in ASEAN took a little while later. But the start was made to begin the buildup economic agreements as we know them.

By 1978, the second summit meeting of heads of government was held. It also became ASEAN plus 3, with the president of the US (Carter), prime ministers of Australia (Whitlam) and of Japan (Fukuda) in attendance.