The new Asean era is here

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GIL H. A. SANTOS

THE 50th Asean Summit starting today here in Manila actually ushers in the new economic development age for the region triggered by the three-cornered global race for geopolitical influence among the US and its Asia-Pacific allies on one corner, and China and Russia on the other two.

All three groups are using all tools available—diplomacy, cultural exchanges, trade, offers of economic, technical and military aid to entice all 10 Asean countries. But, if not closely prudently regulated by the recipient countries (considering the military establishments’ roles in some Asean members), this could lead to an undesirable risky arms race in the region at the expense of the agriculture and manufacturing sectors.

In the Communist Party of China’s 19th National Assembly last month in Beijing, President Xi Jinping stressed that his vision-mission was to have China contribute to a win-win environment which emphasizes increased world trade liberalization and his One Belt, One Road offer of railroad networks to Asean countries, the Middle East and Central Asia, to connect them with Beijing. He blasted all measures that promote national protectionism. It was, without naming the US, a swipe at US President Donald Trump’s “America first” trade policy.

On the other hand, Trump in his official visits to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the recently concluded 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam, took his own shot at China. He stressed that freedom of shipping in the Asia-Pacific region and East Asia must be assured by all. It was a reference to the current Chinese build-up of military facilities on the reefs and atolls and reclamations in the South China Sea where some $5 trillion in commercial shipping ply annually, transporting goods from Europe, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia to East and Northeast Asia.


Russia would not be far behind as President Vladimir Putin himself has entertained President Rodrigo Duterte and given the Philippines token military arms for use against international terrorists in Marawi. Moscow also signed an agreement to import Philippine fruits and Russian naval vessels—for the first time—officially visited the Philippines.

The Chinese, admittedly with the mission to dislodge and replace the US as the world economic power, is now on an innovation mode. Beijing can be expected to pirate new inventions—mechanical devices or systems (including artificial intelligence)—and “improve on it as its own.” As one former official of the Philippine Intellectual Property Rights Office, who prefers to be anonymous for now, said, “This raises some questions from both the industrialized and developing countries about its [China’s] adherence to the rule of law because of its territorial dispute with Asean members on the South China Sea and non-recognition of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas when it applies to its nine-dash claims on almost all of that sea.”

In this week’s Asean ummitry, expect the three-corner competition for influence to echo their respective vision-mission with China and the US taking the limelight.

Xi can be expected to rehash his two-stage economic development of China to assist the world’s underdeveloped and developing economic regions like the Asean. He will probably call for more trade liberalization as its growth is predicted to slow down below seven percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). But Asean, and its infrastructure-building fever—with the Philippines (7.5 to eight percent growth) leading it—is predicted to be the world’s fastest growing economic group in the next couple of decades.

Trump’s policy of attracting American overseas investments to return home or put them in any of the Aseanmembers to prevent China from displacing the US as the top economy and prevent the renminbi from replacing the dollar in the world markets, is expected to intensify unless his own approval rating at home takes a spin dive.

This year, the Asean has adopted the Philippine initiative of pushing Asean economies to be entrepreneurial, adopt more production technologies to raise productivity levels and boost agriculture and rural development to attain food security. This is obvious as this week also in Manila, the Asean Business Advisory Council will launch its own private sector-led Asean Mentorship for Enterprises Networks. It is focused on information relative to access to funds, the local and international markets and sustained education for small- and medium-scale businesses.

The Asean is natural resources-rich. It is endowed with what is known as the Coral Triangle. Its base runs from Papua New Guinea in the east to Indonesia in the west, and its apex is the Philippines. Its total geographic area s only three percent of the globe’s surface but its biodiversity is almost 25 percent of the world’s and still counting. With India in South Asia, Asean is the biggest regional producer of coconut and coconut products. Asean’s marine products include tuna and some pelagic species of fin fish enough to supply food to almost half of the world’s population.

Because technologies are controlled by the industrialized nations, it is admittedly debatable if globalization really benefits all nations. The APEC summit in Vietnam had the developing economies’ leaders complaining that globalization disadvantages poor nations, due to lack of human capital, financial insufficiency and marginalized or comparative number of poor or indigent population.

Our suggestion to the Asean leaders in this new era must now be critical of the objectives of the superpowers, particularly those who offer aid regardless of the form. We could use some self-analysis while we deal with aid offers. Consider our strength and weaknesses, opportunities and threats in any national undertaking. All industrialized countries have their own agenda. As some sage once said there is no free lunch. So, the Philippines, particularly the national leadership, must wear the critical-and-strategic thinking hat all the time. Use the readily available information and communication technologies for strategic information and planning to push the economic growth faster.

The opportunities are here now because Asean is the most promising region for growth. And the superpowers are interested in us. Let us take this chance to strengthen and ensure the growth of our country and region.

(Comments and reactions to gilsmanilatimes@yahoo.com)

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