Risks and rewards in regional integration

opinion April 06, 2012 00:00

By Thanong Khanthong

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Cambodia hosted the Asean Summit earlier this week.

In past summits, hard-hitting political issues dominated the agenda. This summit was no different. North Korea’s planned rocket launch in the middle of this month, the conflict in the South China Sea and the election outcome in Myanmar stole all the headlines. The machinery for the economic integration of the 10-nation Asean, however, kept pace. By 2015 the Asean Economic Community (AEC) will reach a milestone. It will signal a point of no return.

I was invited to speak at a seminar organised by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, on “Political Public Relations in the Asean Context”, which took place right after the summit in Phnom Penh. The event brought together leading journalists, PR practitioners, academics and government officials from around the region. Evidently, there was a shared opinion at the seminar of a widening gap between Asean leaders and people in the private sector – not to mention the general public, who stand to be affected, one way or another, by the integration the leaders are spearheading. Panellists and participants agreed to a critical role played by the media in bridging this information gap. At the same time, frustrations were also expressed about the lack of interest on the part of Asean leaders to reach out to the general public of the Asean community and to communicate with people about the impact of economic integration. On my part, I raised a number of crucial areas in which the media have to pay more attention in coverage of Asean affairs.
First, the Asean media have to work harder in terms of covering the impact of Asean integration on the poor, unskilled workers and farmers. These people are vulnerable and are most likely to be adversely affected by liberalisation and opening up of economic competition.
Second, Like Europe before us, the AEC is a great experiment for the region as a whole. Nobody knows exactly what will happen after integration is completed after 2015. The AEC is like a big elephant in the room. But we can only know it by touching its ears, tail, tusks, or trunk. We don’t see the whole body. In other words, we only know that the process is inevitable and will have a far-reaching impact on our society, politics, economics, culture and our relations with our neigbours.
One Thai executive said we should integrate only by 60 per cent rather than having an ambitious programme for 100 per cent integration like the Europeans, who are now facing a euro crisis.
Third, there will be gains and there will be losses. The media have a full responsibility to inform the public about the gains and losses to be faced as the common market comes into being. This will allow people to be prepared to cope with the challenges and the risks.
What kind of programmes should be put in place to help workers, companies and industries to cope with the transition? Singapore’s financial sector could be a winner, while the Thai auto industry, food sector, tourism and service sectors (like healthcare) might also become winners.
Fourth, the smaller Asean nations are likely to lose out eventually to foreign competition. From the European experiment, we can see a clear pattern of the smaller or weaker economies such as Greece or Portugal being vulnerable to the risks of integration. They can’t compete with Germany, Holland or other northern European countries. In the end, these countries give up production and turn to consumption, speculate in real estate and rely on government spending to drive the economy. This ends up with real estate and financial bubbles, consumer debt, government indebtedness and a full-blown crisis.
Fifth, once the Asean economies are integrated, they will be vulnerable to contagion effects. Experiences in the 1997 crisis and the ongoing euro crisis show that when a country faces a crisis, the impact can quickly spread to neighbouring countires within a bloc. This also applies to pandemics.
Sixth, in the media coverage of Asean affairs, we can’t help trying to protect national interests above regional interests. The Thai media and Cambodian media, for instance, can’t be impartial when they report about the border conflict. The challenge is to overcome embedded prejudices to achieve a common interest and shared security.
Finally, Asean is not a region cut off from the world. The role of the superpowers is the invisible hand. Regional security issues and interests have the fingerprints of the superpowers over them. The media have to watch the role of the superpowers, which often try to set the agenda or at times drive a wedge between Asean members.
The media have to bear in mind the need to be able to see through the prisms of complicated events that interact between global, regional and national affairs. We are not a lone player. We need to navigate challenges. It is important to inform the public so that people gain knowledge of international, regional and national affairs. These are closely interrelated and significantly affect our future livelihood and security.