The first step in Asean’s long journey to today can, perhaps, be said to have been taken about 13 years before its formal founding in August 1967 with the signing of the Bangkok Declaration by the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
That first step, which became the impetus for the idea of connecting Southeast Asia economies, was called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation. This was an international organisation of eight members created after World War II for the purpose of establishing a strong, collective defence in Southeast Asia.
In this group, only the Philippines and Thailand were actually Southeast Asian economies. The rest, including Great Britain, the United States and France, were the principal colonial powers in the region. Among other reasons, the consensus approach of Seato greatly limited its military significance – not to mention that it seemed to be a copy-paste model of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation which did not work in an Asian setting.
It was a more security-focused cooperation with the two-pronged objective of preventing the advance of communism from happening via a “domino theory” (ie if one country fell to communism the others would follow suit) and promoting a China containment policy led by the West.
This security focus had not significantly waned even during the establishment of Asean in 1967 at the height of the Cold War, and Asean’s main objectives then were to create a bulwark against communism and to prevent conflicts between newly created post-colonial nations.
Times have significantly changed. The preeminence and regional standing of the two main Cold War protagonists, the USSR and the US, were seriously dented with the breakup of the USSR and the disastrous experience of the US in the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, Deng Xiaoping launched China on its march to the less-threatening economic powerhouse that it is today, making a continued China-containment policy anachronistic. As these developments unfolded, Asean became more aware of the economic potential of its population of 700 million, expanded from five to 10 nations, and began to shift its focus toward a continued commitment to promote regional peace and stability, while emphasising acceleration of the region’s economic growth and the development of a single market and production base.
Asean countries emulated Japan’s export-oriented economic strategy and became known as “tiger economies”. The Asian economic crisis notwithstanding, economists and pundits alike have forecast the advent of the “Asian Century”.
To pull that forecast off successfully, Asia (including Asean) has to achieve the kind of dynamic economy the West has attained by putting into place the indispensable economic pillars that have become basic structural elements of all progressive Western economies.
Thus, first: A robust and globally recognised financial system. Asia has the world’s highest savings rates but continues to rely on American and Euro bonds for large-scale finance. The case for less reliance on the West already had its genesis during the Asian financial, when the West, led by the US and the International Monetary Fund, dragged its feet towards a financial rescue package on the grounds of moral hazard. This was in contrast to its mad rush to provide one for Mexico during its earlier financial crisis.
I witnessed this as chair of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) finance ministers at that time. Asia learned the important lesson of needing to wean itself from dependency on the West.
Thus the resulting establishment of the fledgling Asian bond market and the recent recognition of the Chinese renminbi as an international reserve currency have become important elements upon which to build Asian finance.
Second: Widespread development of infrastructure. Through its One Belt, One Road Asian infrastructure development programme, China will inevitably take the lead in transforming the economies of countries all along the ancient Silk Road from Eastern China through Central Asia all the way to Moscow. The effect on Asia could be similar to the transformation the US economy experienced via its building of the interstate highway system and the expansion of its rural electrification programme that transformed its Dust Bowl states into progressive economies. But it will also advance a geopolitical manoeuvre to expand the Chinese sphere of influence throughout Asia.
Asean, on the other hand, has launched its Master Plan for Asean Connectivity (MPAC) comprising 15 priority projects, including the Asean Highway Network, the Singapore-Kunming Rail Link, the Asean Broadband Corridor and the Mindanao-Bitung (Indonesia) Roll-on Roll-off Network. Since all this requires significant levels of financing, China’s infrastructure bank (the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) and the establishment of the Asean Infrastructure Fund are steps in the right direction. But increased Asian influence on the leadership structure of the World Bank (should its president always be American?) and the IMF (should its head always be European?) may also be needed.
Third: Intra-Asian agreement on security arrangements concerning potential flash points such as North Korea and the South China Sea. Asian countries must evolve modus vivendi on such matters or leave their fate to a continuous US role as the regional policeman of last resort.
Fourth: Further development of an Asian trade community. The EU model with its open trade and borders is a good one to emulate but without a Pan Asian government or common currency. The AEC and RCEP are positive inputs toward the formation of a trade community based on a market making up 60 per cent of world population.
Should continued progress along these lines be taken, this will indeed be an Asian Century crafted primarily by Asian initiative. And even as it faces the challenges of mega-trends such as increasing urbanisation, competition for finite natural resources, the inevitable rise of a larger middle class, and the technological revolution, Asean will be an integral part of this Asian Century, maintaining the peace and stability of the past 50 years of its existence, and achieving its desired inclusive growth objective.
The writer was the Philippines’ secretary of finance (1994-1998) under president Fidel Ramos.