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Can the ASEAN Economic Community be a success?

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After almost two decades of discussion, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will be proclaimed on 31st December. The AEC is a potentially significant and competitive economic region, should it be allowed to develop according to the aspiration of being a “single market and production base, with free flow of services, investments, and labour, by the year 2020”.

The ASEAN region as a composite trading block has the third highest population at 634 million, after China and India. GDP per capita is rapidly rising. The AEC would be the 4th largest exporter after China, the EU, and the United States, with still very much scope for growth from Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam from a diverse range of activities ranging from agriculture, food, minerals and commodities, electronics, and services. The coming AEC is already the 4th largest importer of goods after the United States, EU, and China, making it one of the biggest markets in the world.

Unlike the other trade regions, the AEC still has so much potential for growth with rising population, rising incomes, growing consumer sophistication, and improving infrastructure.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the upcoming AEC is the expected boost this will give to intra-ASEAN trade. Most ASEAN nations have previously put their efforts into developing external relationships with the major trading nations like the EU, Japan and the US through bilateral and free trade agreements. To some extent, the potential of intra-ASEAN trade was neglected, perhaps with the exception of the entrepot of Singapore.

The AEC is an opportunity to refocus trade efforts within the region, especially when Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia are rapidly developing, and Myanmar is opening up for business with the rest of the region.

The social, cultural, political and business interchange within the region has traditionally been low, until the rapid increase of intra-ASEAN travel, due to the low-cost airline explosion within the region.

Today intra-ASEAN trade is approximately 25% of total trade, growing around 10.5% per annum, and expected to reach 30% of total ASEAN trade by the year 2020.

However the necessary infrastructure to support intra-ASEAN trade growth is lagging behind with a delay in the completion of the Trans-Asia Highway in Cambodia, and vastly inadequate border checkpoints between Malaysia and Thailand in Sadao and Kelantan.

Some infrastructure development projects have been severely hit by finance shortfalls within member states.

There are a number of outstanding issues concerning the growth and development of the AEC.

The ASEAN Secretariat based in Jakarta has a small staff, where the best talent is lacking due to the small salaries paid. The Secretariat unlike the EU bureaucratic apparatus in Brussels relies on cooperation between the member state governments for policy direction, funding and implementation of the AEC.

Thus the frontline of AEC implementation are the individual country ministries, which presents many problems, as some issues require multi-ministry cooperation and coordination, which is not always easy to achieve as particular ministries have their own visions and agendas. Getting cooperation of these ministries isn’t easy.

There are numerous structural and procedural issues yet to be contended with. At the inter-governmental level, laws and regulations are yet to be coordinated and harmonized. So in-effect there is one community with 10 sets of regulations in effect this coming January 1st. Consumer laws, intellectual property rights, company and corporate codes (no provision for ASEAN owned companies), land codes, and investment rules are all different among the individual member states.

There are no integrated banking structures, no agreement on common and acceptable currencies (some ASEAN currencies are not interchangeable), no double taxation agreements, and no formal agreements on immigration.

There is not even any such thing as a common ASEAN business visa. These issues are going to hinder market access for regional SMEs. Any local market operations will have to fulfil local laws and regulations which may not be easy for non-citizens to meet and adhere to.

Even though there are some preferential tariffs for a number of classes of ASEAN originating goods, non-tariff barriers are still in existence, which are insurmountable in some cases like the need for import licenses (APs) in Malaysia, and the need to have a registered company which can only be formed by Thai nationals within Thailand.

Some of these problems are occurring because of the very nature of ASEAN itself. ASEAN was founded on the basis of consultation, consensus, and non-interference in the internal affairs of other members. This means that no formal problem solving mechanism exists, and the ASEAN Secretariat is a facilitator rather than implementer of policy. Illegal workers, human trafficking, money laundering, and haze issues between member states have no formal mechanisms through which these issues can be solved from an ASEAN perspective.

This weakens the force for regional integration.

One of the major issues weakening the potential development of the AEC is the apparent lack of political commitment for a common market by the leadership of the respective ASEAN members. Thailand is currently in a struggle to determine how the country should be governed. Malaysia is in the grip of corruption scandals where the prime minister is holding onto power. Myanmar is going through a massive change in the way it will be governed. Indonesia is still struggling with how its archipelago should be governed. There is a view from Vietnam that business within the country is not ready for the AEC.

Intense nationalistic sentiments among for example Thais, exasperated by the recent Preach Vihear Temple conflict along the Thai-Cambodian border need to be softened to get full advantage out of the AEC. The dispute in the International Court of Justice over Pedra Branca, and the Philippine rift with China over the South China Sea show the delicacy of relationships among ASEAN members. The recent Thai court decision on the guilt of Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun in the murder of two young British tourists may also show how fragile intra-ASEAN relationships can be.  

The AEC is going to fall far short of achieving its full potential of becoming a major influence in global trade.

The AEC is not intended to be the same model as the EEC. The AEC is far from being any fully integrated economic community. The lack of social, cultural, and political integration within the ASEAN region indicates the massive job ahead that Europe had been through decades ago. There is still a lot of public ignorance about what the AEC is, and lack of excitement or expectation for what should be a major event within the region. Respective national media are scant on information about the forthcoming launch of the AEC.

Economic nationalism is very strong within ASEAN. Malaysia has its Government Linked Companies (GLCs), State Economic Development Corporations (SEDCs), Thailand its Crown Property Bureau, and family business empires within each country which have vested interests in keeping market access at the current status quo. The AEC is seen as a threat to many existing business empires, which fear open market access. Many of these business empires have enormous political influence upon their respective governments.  

The AEC could be deemed to conflict with the special advantages bumiputera businesses in Malaysia enjoy in areas of government tendering and contracting.

It is yet to be seen how some of these businesses will behave within an AEC environment. However what can be said for sure is that the AEC will not create any level playing field for ASEAN businesses in the foreseeable future.

With the problems the EU is currently facing, maybe it is wisdom in hindsight that the leaders of ASEAN have been extremely cautious in their approach to the formation of the AEC. Any opening up of the labour market could also be a potential disaster. A free flow of labour across ASEAN would potentially put many under-qualified people out of work according to Gyorgy Sziraczki, the director of the ILO in Vietnam.

This could lead to economic downturns in some of the more susceptible parts of the AEC like Lao PDR and Cambodia. The AEC rather than promoting intra-ASEAN trade, lead to a more domestic orientation, where unemployed may see the informal economy looking much more attractive means of making a living.

However, if the leadership of ASEAN see the opportunities of dramatically increasing intra-ASEAN trade, then the AEC has great potential to assist the region withstand any steep economic downturn around the rest of the world.

Projects that are able to boost regional synergies like coordination of education, river system water management, energy, transport, banking and finance, may very quickly improve regional integration. Regional clustering can be developed in education, auto-parts, food production, electronic parts, and the value adding of basic commodities to benefit the economies of the region.

Infrastructure development will be vital to the success of the AEC. For this purpose the ASEAN Infrastructure Fund, financed by member countries and the Asian Development Bank will be extremely important. The recent ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur also reactivated the ASEAN Joint Consultative Committee to resolve trade and investment issues.

The slowness of the AEC should not be seen as a failure of ASEAN. We can see the slow pace that ASEAN makes decisions, with the long period it is taking to admit Timur Leste as ASEAN’s 11th member.

The vital questions here are whether the AEC will be able attract direct foreign investment to the region? Take advantage of rising opportunities like international education? Stop the talent drain from the region with China becoming more aggressive in attracting the best from the region? and Create an ASEAN awareness within the region?

Sadly, one may expect the fate of the AEC to be similar to that of the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT), and the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-The Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA). They are in existence by name, but with little real substance on the ground.

Innovator and entrepreneur. Notable author, thinker and prof. Hat Yai University, Thailand Contact: murrayhunter58(at)gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

Learning to build a community from a ”Solok Literacy Community”in the West Sumatra

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Established on September 21, 2020 in Solok City, West Sumatra Province, Indonesia. Solok Literacy Community initiated by the young people of Solok City has grown rapidly into a community that has its own trendsetter among young people. Bringing narratives smelling of education, The Literacy Solok Community has a movement with measurable progressiveness that can be seen from its flagship programs.

Starting from the free reading stall movement that has been moving in various corners of Solok City over the past few months. The concept of film surgery that provides proactive discussion space for all segmentation in society. “Diskusi Ngopi” activities which in fact is the concept of FGD (Focus Group Discussion), run with interesting themes and issues so that it can be considered as one of the favorite programs that are often attended by many young people in Solok. Then a class of interests and talents aimed at reactivating the soft skills and great talents of the children of Solok City.

Solok Literacy Community has a long-term goal of making Solok City as a Literacy City in 2025. With these noble targets, of course we together need small steps in the form of programs that run consistently over time. Because after all, a long journey will always begin with small steps in the process of achieving it.

Many appreciations and positive impressions from the surrounding community continue to be received by the Solok Literacy Community. This is certainly a big responsibility for the Solok Literacy Community to continue to commit to grounding literacy in Solok City. Solok Literacy Community activities can be checked directly through instagram social media accounts @solok_literasi. Carrying the tagline #penetrategloomy or penetrating the gloom and #lawanpembodohan, members of the Solok Literacy Community or better known as Soliters, will always make innovative breakthroughs in completing the goal of making Solok City 2025 as a Literacy City.

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Southeast Asia

Indonesia Submit Extended Continental Shelf Proposal Amidst Pandemic: Why now is important?

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Authors: Aristyo Rizka Darmawan and Arie Afriansyah*

Indonesia’s active cases of coronavirus have been getting more worrying with more than 100.000 active cases. With nearly a year of pandemic, Indonesia’s not only facing a serious health crisis but also an economic catastrophe. People lose their jobs and GDP expected to shrink by 1.5 percent. Jakarta government therefore should work hard to anticipate the worst condition in 2021.

With this serious economic threat, Indonesia surely has to explore maximize its maritime geographic potential to pass this economic crisis and gain more national revenue to recover from the impact of the pandemic. And there where the Extended Continental Shelf submission should play an important role.

Recently this week, Indonesia submit a second proposal for the extended continental shelf in the southwest of the island of Sumatra to the United Nations Commission on the Limit of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). Continental shelf is that part of the seabed over which a coastal State exercises sovereign rights concerning the exploration and exploitation of natural resources including oil and gas deposits as well as other minerals and biological resources.

Therefore, this article argues that now is the right time for Indonesia to maximize its Continental Shelf claim under the law of the sea convention for at least three reasons.

First, one could not underestimate the economic potential of the Continental Shelf, since the US Truman Proclamation in 1945, countries have been aware of the economic potential from the oil and gas exploration in the continental shelf.

By being able to explore and exploit natural resources in the strategic continental shelf, at least Indonesia will gain more revenue to recover the economy. Even though indeed the oil and gas business is also hit by the pandemic, however, Indonesia’s extended continental shelf area might give a future potentials area for exploitation in long term. Therefore, it will help Indonesia prepare a long-term economic strategy to recover from the pandemic. After Indonesia can prove that there is a natural prolongation of the continental shelf.

Second, as the Indo-Pacific region is getting more significant in world affairs, it is strategic for Indonesia to have a more strategic presence in the region. This will make Indonesia not only an object of the geopolitical competition to utilize resources in the region, but also a player in getting the economic potential of the region.

And third, it is also showing that President Joko Widodo’s global maritime fulcrum agenda is not yet to perish. Even though in his second term of administration global maritime fulcrum has nearly never been discussed, this momentum could be a good time to prove that Indonesia are still committed to the Global maritime fulcrum by enhancing more maritime diplomacy.

Though this is not the first time Indonesia submit an extended Continental Shelf proposal to the CLCS, this time it is more likely to be accepted by the commission. Not to mention the geographical elements of natural prolongation of the continental shelf that has to be proved by geologist.

The fact that Indonesia has no maritime border with any neighboring states in the Southwest of Sumatra. Therefore, unlike Malaysia’s extended continental shelf proposal in the South China Sea that provoke many political responses from many states, it is less likely that Indonesia extended continental shelf proposal will raise protest from any states.

However, the most important thing to realize the potential benefit of the extended continental shelf as discussed earlier, Indonesia should have a strategy and road map how what to do after Indonesia gets the extended continental shelf.

*Arie Afriansyah is a Senior Lecturer in international law and Chairman of the Center for Sustainable Ocean Policy at University of Indonesia.

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Southeast Asia

The China factor in India’s recent engagement with Vietnam

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Photo courtesy - PTI

In its fourth year since the elevation of ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, December 2020 witnessed an enhanced cooperation between New Delhi and Hanoi, ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to defence and maritime cooperation, amid common concerns about China.

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In an effort to boost defence cooperation, the navies of India and Vietnam conducted atwo-day passage exercise (Passex) in the South China Sea on December 26 and 27, 2020, reinforcing interoperability and jointness in the maritime sphere. Two days before this exercise has begun, an Indian naval ship arrived at Nha Rong Port in Ho Chi Minh City to offer humanitarian assistance for the flood-affected parts of Central Vietnam.

Before this, in the same week, during a virtual summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc on December 21, both countries inked seven agreements on miscellaneous areas of cooperation and jointly unveiled a vision and plan of action for the future, as both countries encounter the common Chinese threat in their respective neighbourhoods.

Vietnam’s disputes with China

India’s bone of contention with China ranges from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean. Both Vietnam and India share territorial borders with China. Well, it seems odd that despite its common socialistic political backgrounds, China and Vietnam remains largely hostile. 

Having a 3,260 km coastline, covering much of the western part of South China Sea, Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) overlaps with Chinese claims based on the legally invalid and vaguely defined Nine-Dash Line concept, unacceptable for all the other countries in the region, including Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

In 2016, China lost a case brought out by the Philippines at the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague when the court ruled that Beijing’s had no legal basis to claim ‘historic rights’ as per the nine-dash line. China rejected the ruling and continued to build artificial islands in the South China Sea, which it has been doing since 2013, some of them later militarized to gain favourable strategic footholds in the sea and the entire region.

The Paracel and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea has been historically considered part of Vietnam. The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War, gave the erstwhile South Vietnam control of territories south of the 17th Parallel, which included these island groups. But, China lays claims on all of these islands and occupies some of them, leading to an ongoing dispute with Vietnam.

China and Vietnam also fought a border war from 1979 to 1990. But today, the disputes largely remain in the maritime sphere, in the South China Sea.

China’s eyes on the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean has been long regarded as India’s sphere of influence. But with the Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar megaproject proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, and the Maritime Silk Road connecting three continents, which is part of it, China has grand ambitions in the Indian Ocean. Theories such as ‘String of Pearls’ shed light on an overambitious Beijing, whichattempts to encircle India with ports and bases operating under its control.

China has also opened a military base in Djibouti, overlooking the Indian Ocean, in 2017 and it has also gained control of the strategic port of Hambantota in the southern tip of the island of Sri Lanka, the same year.

Chinese presence in Gwadar in Pakistan, where the Maritime Silk Route meets the land route of BRI, is also a matter of concern for India. Moreover, the land route passes through the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region, which is under Pakistani control, but is also claimed by India.  China has also been developing partnerships with Bangladesh and Myanmar to gain access to its ports in the Bay of Bengal.

Notwithstanding all this, India’s response has been robust and proactive. The Indian Navy has been building partnership with all the littoral states and small island states such as Mauritius and Seychelles to counter the Chinese threat.

India has also been engaged in humanitarian and developmental assistance in the Indian Ocean region, even much before the pandemic, to build mutual trust and cooperation among these countries. Last month, India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visited Sri Lanka to revive a trilateral maritime security dialogue with India’s two most important South Asian maritime neighbours, the islands of Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Foe’s foe is friend

The Indian Navy holding a Passex with Vietnam in the South China Sea, which is China’s backyard, is a clear message to Beijing. This means, if China ups the ante in the Indian Ocean or in the Tibetan border along the Himalayas, India will intensify its joint exercises and defence cooperation with Vietnam.

A permanent Indian presence in the South China Sea is something which Beijing’s never wish to see materialise in the new future. So, India’s engagement with Vietnam, which has a long coast in this sea, is a serious matter of concern for Beijing.

During this month’s virtual summit, Prime Minister Modi has also reiterated that Vietnam is a key partner of India in its Indo-Pacific vision, a term that Beijing vehemently opposes and considers as a containment strategy against its rise led by the United States.

Milestones in India-Vietnam ties – a quick look-back

There was a time when India supported Vietnam’s independence from France, and had opposed US-initiated war in the Southeast Asian country in the latter half of the previous century. Later, India hailed there-unification of North and South Vietnams.

Even though India maintained consulate-level relations with the then North and South Vietnams before the re-unification, it was elevated to ambassadorial level in 1972, thereby establishing full diplomatic ties that year.

During the Vietnam War, India supported the North, despite being a non-communist country, but without forging open hostilities with the South. Today, India partners with both France and the United States, Vietnam’s former colonizers, in its Indo-Pacific vision, comfortably along with Vietnam as geopolitical dynamics witnessed a sea change in the past few years and decades.

Way ahead

Today, these two civilizational states, sharing religio-cultural links dating many centuries back, is coming together again to ensure a favourable balance of power in Asia. Being a key part of India’s ‘Act East’ policy and ‘Quad Plus’ conceptualisation, Vietnam’s role is poised to increase in the years to come as China continues to project its power in Asia and beyond.

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