Transport is crucial to regional integration in the borderless era of globalisation.
Asean’s aspiration of transforming itself into an economic community hinges, therefore, on its ability to transcend the physical borders running through it. It has taken a big step in that direction with moves to forge a single shipping and aviation market, while making it easier for buses to transport cargo and passengers across Southeast Asia’s borders. The immediate effects of these initiatives will be economic since ease of travel encourages greater interaction. Shipping, aviation and road transport act as powerful multipliers for domestic economies, plugging them into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
This is the true meaning of integration, which is necessary if Asean is to leave behind its ascribed identity as a diplomatic community – that is, an association dependent largely on political relations among its states. The determination of states will no doubt continue to shape Asean’s direction, but markets and peoples, too, must be free to contribute to its evolution from below.
The signing of an agreement on the Facilitation of Cross-Border Transport of Passengers by Road Vehicles will deepen bus networks, facilitating the movement of those who do not have access to air travel. Connectivity, a central instrument of integration, must not be limited to pacts but must touch the everyday lives of people if Asean is to become a lived reality for its millions.
The association made an important move in that direction through its open-skies agreement, the ratification process for which was completed last year. That milestone was key because it overcame a major hurdle, the felt need among political and economic players in some countries to protect domestic airlines by treating air travel as a national resource to be controlled.
There always will be problems with aligning economies at different levels of development, some more jealous than others of their sovereign right to regulate commerce within their borders. This is where Asean integration creates a common momentum which its individual members cannot ignore. The simplification of Customs procedures, for example, will enable goods to flow more efficiently in the open and integrated economies which are the building blocks of the new Asean. Liberalised trade will benefit consumers across the region although, inevitably, there will be both losers and winners among companies. Overall, however, more trade will create more opportunities and improve prospects for all.
Asean integration is an urgent issue. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is set to transform the geo-economic landscape of Asia and Africa, even as protectionism threatens the Western sphere. Asean’s collective strength in numbers and potential will help ensure that Southeast Asia preserves its economic vitality amid change.