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Sep 28, 2006

Asean can become more like the EU

By For The Straits Times, Joergen Oerstroem Moeller

GLOBAL trade and investment dwarf national economic flows and thus diminish the scope for individual and national policies. When that is the case, runs the argument, why not get together and institutionalise the cooperation - form a group of nations strong enough to safeguard the interests of each nation state, enhance their capabilities to shape national policies and even put an imprint on global developments?

The Europeans have in selected areas pooled their sovereignty. Contrary to expectations, this has not reduced but enhanced the power of individual nation states to pursue national objectives.

They have become better able to control the impact of economic globalisation and, to a certain extent, better able to shape its processes instead of being its passive subjects.

Wealth and prosperity rarely flow from national economies. They depend on how the nation states turn global economic developments to their advantage.

Two recent developments give credence to this line of thinking - the uncertainty about the future of world trade after the unsuccessful Doha round of talks and the discussion about an appreciation of Asian currencies, in particular the Chinese yuan compared to the US dollar.

Small nation states heavily dependent on international trade and investment are, more than bigger nations, subject to the vagaries of trade and currency fluctuations. The future of Asean will depend on its ability to define a role inside a larger and more powerful East Asian or Asian economic body.

This is not impossible. Asia's trade figures suggest that Asia could become a self-sustaining economy. South-east Asian countries can carve out a platform for themselves in this economic powerhouse built around China and India.

Secondly, it may be worthwhile to build an Asean identity, not in conflict or competition with the national identities of member states, but as a value-added factor. In Europe, many Europeans refer to both their nationality and their European identity when asked how they identify themselves; some even include the region they come from, such as Scotland, Bavaria or Catalonia.

For Asean, perhaps the time has come to sketch some guidelines, some ideals and some ambitions for member states.

Closing loopholes

A DEGREE of common understanding of what is good and what is bad behaviour would come in handy. A nation state should behave like a good citizen vis--vis its partners and vis--vis its own citizens. But some common ground must be established.

The notion of solidarity goes hand in hand with the idea of a common identity and common destiny. It strengthens the bonds between not only the member states but, and even more importantly, between the populations in the member states. Solidarity must be shown in helping and assisting other member states when hit by economic problems or natural disasters.

The goal of an Asean economic community by 2015 is an ambitious one but ambitions are indispensable for moving ahead. Without a timetable or a road map sketching when to do what, there will be too many loopholes left open. Asean needs, in one way or another, to pin member states down not only on the goals, but also on how to get there.

Asean should scrutinise its competitive parameters to see how they compare against China's and India's, and strengthen those where it is already in front.

As production moves towards higher value- added goods and services, the safeguarding of intellectual property rights - just to mention one example - will tend to determine who wins. Asean could and should capitalise on governance, legal systems and the qualitative environment as competitive parameters.

The time may not be ripe yet for coordinated economic policies, but the time is ripe for deeper consultations and information sharing about national economic policies.

There is talk of exchange rate cooperation in East Asia but no one knows how far and how fast it will go, and/or how successful whatever is put in motion may be. Steps to move national economic policies towards convergence instead of divergence are necessary first steps in preparing the ground for possible currency rate cooperation.

Like it or not, individual nation states are confronted with a whole range of global issues, such as trade policy, global warming and energy. It is fair enough if Asean member states do not adopt the same stand on all these issues, but steps to find a common position could be initiated. That will increase awareness of how Asean could influence global negotiations. It will also enhance the sense of identity, common destiny and solidarity.

International terrorism, international crime and infectious diseases constitute a sinister triangle threatening globalisation. Asean is in a position to contribute to the global debate on how to combat these evils.

Reaching out to the public

DESPITE integration being at a far more advanced stage, the European Union (EU) has found it difficult to rally continued support from the public. This underlines the necessity of reaching out to the public to explain why integration is a good thing and what advantages it offers for the majority of people. People want to know how it actually improves their daily lives.

Within Europe, passports indicate both the holder's nationality and his or her membership of the EU. The same may be considered for Asean. It will be tangible evidence of an Asean identity.

In schools, the curriculum could be used to develop an Asean identity. In the long run, children will be decisive in forging that identity. In Europe, it was the so-called 'Inter-Rail generation' travelling around Europe on cheap railway tickets that led to more awareness of other EU member states.

The whole panoply of measures in the EU to facilitate study in other member states falls in the same category. Indeed, the French and the Germans are working on a common history book and have recently set up a common Franco-German university.

Asean cannot be compared to the EU or even to any particular stage in the process of European integration, but in one respect a parallel may be drawn. If nothing happens and the integration gets trapped in a stalemate without producing results and/or progress, support among politicians, business people and the general public will start to wane. It is often said of European integration that it can be compared to a bike: It must move ahead all the time in order not to lose balance.

In the globalised world it is cold to be alone, but cosy to be among adjacent and like-minded countries.

The writer is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. This is a personal comment.


The Europeans have in selected areas pooled their sovereignty. Contrary to expectations, this has not reduced but enhanced the power of individual nation states to pursue national objectives.

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