News Analysis: After Brexit and U.S. election, ASEAN at crossroads

MANILA-- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is often mentioned together with the European Union (EU) to illustrate the trend of regional integration.

As ASEAN turns 50 this year, the world seems to turn away from globalization as seen in Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, what should ASEAN do next?

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, which chairs the ASEAN summit in Manila this year, earlier laid out several areas as priorities to be discussed with ASEAN leaders, which include peace and stability in the region, maritime security and cooperation, and ASEAN as a model of regionalism and a global player.

But to build ASEAN into a model of regionalism still faces uncertainties.

"The agenda for the ASEAN community this year is unfortunately stale," said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies based in Kuala Lumpur.

"Most of the easiest measures -- the so-called 'low-hanging fruits' -- have already been adopted," he said.

On top of the most difficult issues left for ASEAN to tackle are non-tariff barriers (NTBs) and non-tariff measures (NTMs), which hinder trade despite the general slashing of tariffs in recent decades.

According to the study of Lockman, the number of NTBs and NTMs have in fact increased from 1,639 measures in 2000 to 5,975 in 2015.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, when attending a forum on the sideline of the summit in Manila on Friday, said for ASEAN's economy to achieve the USD 9.2-trillion figure by 2050, there had to be a 20 percent reduction in fixed trade costs.

From the global perspective, ASEAN is faced with the alternative as to whether to embrace globalization, or as some have suggested to take cue from Brexit and adopt a wait-and-see stance.

Abdul Majid Ahmad Khan, former Malaysian ambassador to China, said one major task for the 10 ASEAN leaders at the summit was to discuss how to deal with Trump, who since his campaign to election, has been sending a signal to turn away from globalization and to abandon multilateralism to focus on unilateralism or bilateral negotiations.

ASEAN, from the start, has been a multilateralism-based organization, said Majid, adding ASEAN countries had shown some concerns for the rise of protectionism and globalization backlash.

Joey Concepcion, a business advisor to Duterte, said Trump's plan to bring back jobs was at the expense of consumers' benefits.

After the United States announced its formal withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), ASEAN countries, among which four countries - Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam - are also TPP participants are the first to call for the promotion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

It is believed that ASEAN would like to conclude negotiations of RCEP in 2017 to coincide with its 50th anniversary, but still, some analysts urged for cautious optimism.

"There's also been a growth in protectionist sentiments in several ASEAN countries, most notably in Indonesia. This calls for a more vigorous push by several key ASEAN countries," said Lockman.

Moreover, the China-proposed "Belt and Road" initiative has grabbed the attention of ASEAN leaders, among whom seven ASEAN leaders or heads of state will attend the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing next month.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, said ASEAN should serve as a super transit point for the advancement of "Belt and Road" considering its geographical location and its diversity in culture and races.

"ASEAN can also become an example to let the world see how to better strengthen bilateral ties with China," said Oh.

As for the disunity criticism leveled at ASEAN, Oh said that is exactly the strength of ASEAN, which with its resiliency knows when to accommodate differences and when to push for consensus.

"Such a resilient combination will help make ASEAN lead a long life -- now it's 50 years old. I believe we will see its next 50 years," he said.

Source: Philippines News Agency

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