The ASEAN Identity

By Lorraine LorenzoNovember 12, 2017

‘Economically, an emerging powerhouse’

MORE THAN social progress, cultural development, and political brotherhood, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) integration is a promising and lucrative avenue for economic growth among its 10 main country members.

ASEAN started with five original members. Today, 10 countries — Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — comprise ASEAN who have been enjoying various benefits of being part of the group. The 50th year of ASEAN will be celebrated this coming week at the 31st ASEAN Summit which will be hosted by our country.

The dynamics of this organization is truly unique — small countries in the same Asian region (each with its own strength) join hands to become one of the world’s most formidable alliances — a fact recognized by no less than dialogue partners and superpowers China and the USA.

Under the ASEAN agreement, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia, signed at the First ASEAN Summit on Feb. 24, 1976, states that the nation members will be guided under the following fundamentals: Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations; the right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion, or coercion; non-interference in the internal affairs of one another; settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner; renunciation of the threat or use of force; and effective cooperation among themselves.


Political and economic success

The ASEAN was established on Aug. 8, 1967 in Bangkok by the five original member countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, with the objective to promote development in the region through worthwhile joint endeavors, and to promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law under the principles of the United Nations Charter.

This partnership has gone a long way in both political and economic aspects, and has resulted in notable treaties such as establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Southeast Asia, with the objective of implementing ASEAN’s 1971 Declaration on a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), and a Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ), which would be a component of ZOPFAN.

When it comes to economics, opportunities for every ASEAN country to grow its wealth has been remarkable — the exchange of resources and trading of goods were streamlined, bureaucracy was cut to a minimum, and almost everyone benefitted from the exchange.

“It expanded the market,” said Prof. Amado Mendoza, Jr., a political science professor in UP Diliman who teaches international relations theory, international politics, international political economy, and Southeast Asian political economy. He has a Ph.D in Political Science and MA in International Studies also from UP.

“It’s a theoretical idea, but the ASEAN partnership has made the market bigger for member nations. Suddenly, appliances from the Philippines are not just sold in the local market, and Filipinos are no longer the only ones who enjoy eating in Jollibee. The ASEAN partnership has opened new avenues for our products to reach other shores,” Mendoza said.

From the point of view of all country-members, this market expansion is the immediate benefit. As not all members have the same level of economic development, the ASEAN membership has played a big role in somewhat leveling the playing field.

“For example, Vietnam and Laos are considered highly agricultural countries.  They know that they still need heavy machines maybe from Singapore that can help them harvest their produce. The ASEAN partnership has made it easier to acquire those machines,” he added.  “As member, getting a product from another country is more affordable thanks to the cheaper transportation cost, cheaper insurance cost, and easier/ shorter transportation.”


Membership advantage

Another benefit which citizens of partner-countries enjoy is the freedom to move about when visiting ASEAN countries.

“ASEAN members extend visa-free visits, so people can easily visit places like Jakarta, Penang and Kuala Lumpur. This also means getting a special line in airports which citizens of member-countries enjoy,” Mendoza said. .

This visa-free entry has stimulated other factors in the tourism industry. Budget airlines are now on the rise, easily bringing passengers to navigate the ASEAN region.

“But it’s not just the budget airlines that saw growth in the tourism industry. There’s also growth in the food, lodging, and insurance industry. Not only that, even makers of souvenir items and T-shirts have become big because of the ASEAN integration.”


Philippine advantage

How exactly does this translate to the Philippine economy? The answer is simple: It has opened up new windows for other nations to see how beautiful our country really is.

“The ASEAN region is lucky in a way because all members boast of the most beautiful destinations in the world. Almost all of us in the ASEAN have the most picturesque beaches and serve exotic food which foreigners look for.”

And when it comes to the Philippines, we offer so much more because the country is fairly safe from the usual concerns such as terrorism. “We are relatively safe. We don’t worry about certain issues in other countries like terrorism, especially if foreigners visit the northern part of our country.”



But then there are also the disadvantages with regards to the ASEAN partnership. First is clash of culture — opening an ASEAN country to other nations mean exposing the cultural and religious belief of a nation. This could mean unrest for some, and Mendoza cited tourism scenes like sunbathing on the beach while wearing something skimpy could offend members who are from a Muslim country.

“Culturally there are many considerations. The ASEAN integration is a chance to celebrate and observe other cultures which is a good thing, but it also means exposing something that another country might find offensive or uncomfortable,” he revealed.

The next disadvantage is community displacement. The ASEAN partnership is bringing so much opportunities for member-countries to grow, but this kind of progress could also result to alienating communities where modernization and progress is happening.

“For example, because of the tourism boom, many regions in the country hope to develop their beaches as the next big tourist destination. This could mean transforming virgin islands into private beaches which could also mean that original settlers in a place could lose their land and their home because of ongoing developments.”


ASEAN role in the Philippine economy

Ideally, the ASEAN influence does not end among member-countries alone. Other countries in the surrounding the region often participate in forums and exchanging of ideas and policies that the ASEAN nation enjoys. To date, there are 27 states who participate in ASEAN forums, and they include countries such as Australia, Japan, China, South Korea, and the US.

“The ASEAN countries, who are kind and welcoming to a fault, is the easiest way to approach conflicting countries such as North Korea and the US. It is an unspoken characteristic of ASEAN nations. Almost all partner-members have a very diplomatic way of handling erring countries, which make the ASEAN region’s role very important,” said Mendoza.

In the Philippines, this partnership has truly been an advantage especially among enterprising individuals. “It’s hard to generalize and determine how exactly the ASEAN partnership has affected the poorest members of our society, but as a general belief, even if you have the product and the opportunity to present your product to other markets, but if you do not have an effort to market it carefully, or to even train to improve your product, then nothing will happen. You will not progress. You can’t always rely on the government to do that for you. Progress needs a private-public partnership, for it to work.”


Facing challenges

In this year’s 31st ASEAN Summit with the theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World”, ASEAN nations are opening the chance for non-member countries to work with them is bridging the cultural divide and coming up with a more global approach to progress.

This possibility is recognized by superpowers and dialogue partners like China and the US (which Mendoza described as sharing a rather complicated relationship). “We all know that there is a struggle on which nation is the most powerful. Both countries are aware that the ASEAN region can make a difference on who will reign supreme in the end.”

The establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 is a major milestone in the regional economic integration agenda in ASEAN, offering opportunities in the form of a huge market of US$2.6 trillion and over 622 million people. In 2014, AEC was collectively the third largest economy in Asia and the seventh largest in the world.

“Compared to the European Union (EU), the ASEAN is actually larger in terms of population. There’s so many opportunities to consider because of that.”


One currency for all

Like the EU, there is also hope that someday, ASEAN nations can progress and proper under the one currency law. But then, there are some challenges.

“We are yet to see if that idea will come into fruition in the future. In the EU, it took them a long time to come-up with a one currency advantage, as many of their countries engaged in various battles before deciding to form an alliance. It might be easier for the ASEAN region because all of the member countries live rather peacefully.”

The challenge, Mendoza clarified, does not lies in the economic standing of the countries, but in the type of government each nation follows.

“All EU members have a democratic form of government, unlike in the ASEAN which is more diverse. Some follow a democratic form of government, others parliamentary. Then there’s the communist countries, and the monarchy-type of government like Brunei where absolute power is given to only one person.

Despite this, there is progress, Mendoza said, as more ASEAN countries have been exercising their right to vote when it comes to their government.

“In the long run, the ASEAN region might adopt a democratic form of government, and if that happens, there is a big possibility that the ASEAN will function under one currency.”

Could there be a full ASEAN integration?

Yes, Mendoza answered, but it is an ongoing process and one that needs time before it becomes an absolute reality.

“The beauty of the ASEAN is that in a way, it has its advantages and disadvantages. But in time, when there is peace and understanding, there can be a full ASEAN integration. Then we can continue to become a region contending with the rest of the world.”