In accepting the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, President Rodrigo Duterte promised last year to highlight the 10-nation grouping as a model of regionalism, with the interest of its people at its core.
Today, hosting Asean leaders at their summit in the Philippines he is expected to highlight his war on drugs and on terrorism, Asean unity and possibly warming relations with China and Russia.
But he should also touch on how he and his peers can bridge a crucial issue – the economic divide among Asean members. While tiny member-states like Singapore and Brunei have prosperous economies, there are those that remain poor like Laos and Myanmar.
One way to tackle this disparity is to aggressively pursue the Asean Economic Community (AEC) established in 2015 for a freer flow of goods, services, investment, capital and skilled labour within the region. In the long run, there is also the dream of having a single currency similar to the euro. As it stands, Asean is a trade bloc with growing economic clout given its combined population of more than 620 million – an economy worth US$2.4 trillion that grew by an average of 5 per cent in the past decade.
Initially, the AEC will allow the free movement of professionals in the region, among them engineers, architects, doctors, nurses, lawyers and accountants. The next action should be promotion of MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) in the region by connecting them to markets within and outside the bloc.
This should help address income inequality and the resulting poverty problem in the region. Poorer members like Laos and Myanmar need the region’s stronger economies to help them, since their economies are today being fuelled mainly by government spending. They need investment from the private sector in the more developed members to create jobs that, in turn, will lift many from poverty.
Maritime security and cooperation is another issue that should be decisively tackled today, particularly in the waters between the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia where piracy has become a menace.
Human rights will also be high on the agenda, even if it has become a touchy issue for the host country as a result of the thousands of extrajudicial killings resulting from the administration’s war on drugs. The issue also resounds in the case of the thousands of Rohingya who have fled tensions and state-sanctioned discrimination against the ethnic Muslim minority in Myanmar.
Much speculation has focused on whether Asean will take China to task for its controversial actions in the South China Sea. Based on a draft communique to be issued at the end of today’s summit, it appears that Asean leaders have decided to employ subdued language and avoid any conflict with the regional powerhouse. It’s a stance that will not sit well with former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and others, who insist that the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration invalidating China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea should be an integral part of the framework being finalised for the code of conduct in the disputed waters. Then again, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.
The theme the Philippines chose in hosting the 30th Asean summit – “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World” – aptly reflects the Manila’s drive to promote unity and growth within and among Asean’s member-states and its global partners. An even stronger Asean will emerge if the stronger member-states begin to help the weaker members to grow.