Asean integration hits snag

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ONE of the seemingly positive outcomes of the Asean Tourism Forum 2016 that was held last month here in Manila was an agreement among the 10-member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to work toward developing an “Asean visa,” a collective visa that would streamline travel among the Asean countries, benefiting both visitors to the region and Asean citizens alike.

That objective was included as part of the “Asean Tourism Strategic Plan 2016-2025,” and was thought to be one of the easier parts of the overall plan to implement.  Although there are a variety of technical details that need to be worked out—for example, a system by which the Asean governments can easily share tourism and travel statistics—a target date for the introduction of the Asean visa was set for the first half of the plan’s term, or by the end of 2020.

Agreeing in principle to an idea and actually agreeing to work toward its implementation are two different things, however, as Dr. Tony Fernandes, the CEO of the AirAsia group, indicated yesterday (Thursday). In a couple of Twitter posts, Fernandes vented his frustration at the lack of progress on the Asean visa initiative, which evidently hit a significant roadblock in a working meeting held earlier in the day.

“Asean needs to start delivering,” Fernandes fumed. “Enough talk. We can’t even get an Asean visa together.”


Apparently, two of the ten countries in the regional bloc are objecting to the visa program. Fernandes didn’t identify which two countries; although a different source did, we were unable to properly confirm the information. In any event, the fact that there were objections was more important than who was objecting, as far as Fernandes was concerned.

“The [Asean] community can’t be held back by one or two,” Fernandes wrote. While pointing out that the wishes of individual countries should be respected, he added, “On [the]Asean visa, if two countries don’t want to be in, take them out. It’s time for Asean -1 or Asean -2.”

Obviously Fernandes, as a big investor in the airline and hotel sectors, has a strong interest in seeing the visa plan carried out, and from his point of view, bypassing those who are hesitant about it makes sense. The implied rhetorical question he asked with his complaint on Twitter is, if the Asean cannot manage something relatively easy like a common visa, how much more difficult will it be to find cooperation in more complex issues?

How much, indeed. Last year, analysts estimated that only about 15 percent of the broad plan for Asean integration remained to be completed, but that 15 percent comprised some of the most politically and economically significant issues, such as integration of financial markets and banking system oversight, and resolving exceptions in trade regulations. And because the Asean is based on consensus rather than supranational rule, it is entirely possible that at least some of the remaining issues—perhaps even the common visa – will not be solved.

We agree that an “Asean visa” would be a huge benefit to the entire region; the Philippines would stand to gain from increased tourism, and the reduction in border controls would make travel around the region more efficient for our globe-trotting population.

Be that as it may, the fact of cooperation in any areas is more important than what those particular areas are. If the Asean begins to develop the habit of excluding members for objections about particular initiatives, the very essence of Asean will be compromised, and the strength of the alliance diminished. That, we believe, would be a far more damaging outcome than failing to implement a common visa. The Philippines and its regional partners should bear that in mind, and not ruin a greater bond for the sake of immediate commercial gains.

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