ASEAN 10 in a decade

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GIL H. A. SANTOS

SEVERAL independent international think tanks and financial institutions predict, according to wire service reports, newspapers, special publications and the verifiable social media sources, that the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)— the world’s third most populated region—will overtake China as the fastest economic growth area in the next decade.

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And among the ASEANs, the Philippines will be the fastest growing economy with an annual rate past the seven percent mark.

ASEAN 10 as an integrating economic region will even surpass China whose growth is slowing down to about 6.2 percent due to its domestic socio-economic, geopolitical and environmental problems. The growing negative geopolitical reactions to Beijing’s nine-dash sovereignty claim of—and aggressive military buildup in—the South China Sea will push its growth further down as its demographic trend will show an aging people.

In other words, there is a deadly economic war out there! And every thinking ASEAN member country leadership better realize and understand this to survive and emerge with improved living conditions. In the process, they can speed up the economic integration of the region of almost 700 million consumers (and still counting), with better purchasing powers and lives.

The new American leadership of President Donald Trump, the US military industrial machinery, the Republicans and the military are—obviously to analysts—set to match the Chinese economic offensive and military bullying of its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific area.

History has proven American nationalism and unity can be unparalleled when it comes to a fight for survival—and truly intensely unifying. One has just to go over the accounts of the last two world wars, the Cold War up to year 2000. Now be ready to see more in this 21st century of information, communication and technology.

Naturally and predictably, the Chinese—driven by their belief that this is their Golden Century and the American hegemony/empire is definitely coming to an end after two centuries—have anticipated this and upgraded their preemptive moves from the last two years of President Barack Obama.

Beijing’s economic-military offensives actually started more than 10 years ago when its economic growth surged to more than 10 percent yearly after it opened its special economic zones in its southeastern area. The cheaper energy costs and local workers’ lower wages enabled American and European manufacturers and exporters to have more profitable (and less taxed) operations.

This gave Beijing and the successors of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping down to President Xi Jinping the capabilities to increase their military expansion (including building China’s one aircraft carrier, rocketry with long-range delivery capability, nuclear weaponry; China became the top buyer and hoarder of metals in the world market) and economic influence among the developing countries of Africa, Southeast Asia, Central Asia and even Latin America.

Now there is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that China created to compete against the American-Japanese-European-led World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank (ostensibly to “help” developing nations).

China knows the world’s developing economies are all short of communication and transportation infrastructure including farm-to-market roads, access to capital, education, and cheap energy.

The AIIB and the financial and service aid for a railroad and communications network which Beijing has extended to Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and Brunei to connect with the mainland markets is the answer. She has also offered to construct the railroad networks for archipelagic Indonesia and the Philippines.

That is precisely the shortcut to get ASEAN friendship for China. And it appears to be accurately timed with the election of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who has slackened the special ties with the US to gain more economic benefits for Filipinos from whoever is ready to grant these.

Of course, this China-US rivalry, the worsened European economic problems with the coming Brexit, the current Russian-American standoff in Syria and international terrorism, have intensified debates as to who will emerge winner in this economic war.

Some even argue that a shooting war between the US and China is not going to happen now because both depend economically on each other. Some argue that in case of war, the Americans will win because of arms and technological superiority.

These are external factors that the ASEAN 10 must monitor and analyze more intensely now to see how they will affect us as an integrated economic region and individually as sovereign states among the family of nation-states.

For Philippine political and economic leaders to dream of eradicating poverty by 2040 is easier said than done. And this is true with all the other nine ASEAN members regardless of their cultural differences and colonial histories.

For journalists who are covering the ASEAN meeting in the Philippines now or in the past 30 years or so, they need no scholarly “quantifiable research” to know that the 10 countries—with the exception of Singapore—are not at par with the Western democracies or Eastern communists (or socialists) in the industrial field.

Most of the ASEAN rural and coastal populations are still resistant to accept modern technologies and machinery for increased production and productivity due to lack of education and traditional practices. Except for Singapore, these make up more than 50 percent of their population. There is a great gap between formal education and the actual practices in agriculture and fishery that must be bridged for the rural and coastal folks.

Like I mentioned in a previous column, the ASEAN 10 need proficient professional management of their natural, financial and human resources for cost-efficient production. This includes education for the men and women to be resource managers.

There is an urgent need to greatly minimize corruption and increase government service efficiency to increase productivity and tax collection; greatly reduce national debt, and implement institutional reforms (including minimizing personal and transactional political practices and closely follow the timelines of set economic plans) in all fields of endeavor. In turn, these will attract foreign direct investments—as a rule of thumb—and achieve the desired/planned growth of the gross domestic product.

The Philippines, let me stress from my previous column, is the apex of the Coral Triangle. The total geographical area of this Triangle is a mere three percent of the world’s but its biodiversity, according to the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity, is more than 20 percent of the world’s living animals and plants on land and sea. There are more than 3,000 species of life in the Coral Triangle and scientists are bound to discover some more.

The marine life in the interisland seas of Indonesia and the Philippines alone would be sufficient to feed more than half the world’s seven billion people. ASEAN 10 can be the top seafood provider of the world if we work harder.

This is the field we will excel in because most of our people are not yet ready for corporate operations. They need to be informed—educated if you wish—by proficient educators or communicators.

Look at the industries of the First World. Airplanes are not wholly produced by one economy or manufacturer. German, Italian, British, American Israeli, Japanese, French and other factories produce the different parts of the airplanes. Car spare parts are produced in different countries and assembled in others, even in China. The same is true with miniaturized mobile devices and modern gadgets.

ASEAN 10 must just continue the cultural-social and economic phases of the integration process as planned and, as some wise men have said, be hopeful for the best but prepared simultaneously for the worst.

Comments and reactions can be emailed to gilshj99ph@yahoo.com. Gil H. A. Santos is president of the Center for Philippine Futuristics Studies and Management and teaches journalism and geopolitics at the Lyceum of the Philippines University.

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