The forum, which will be discussed in greater detail in the coming days, focused on the opportunities and challenges presented by the advent of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), which will be officially launched by the end of this year, most likely during the third week of November when the last Asean general assembly for the year will take place.
AIIB, which is being referred to by some as the “BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa] bank,” it is hoped, will both complement and provide a bit of competition to Western-backed lenders like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
How the two new entities—the AEC and the AIIB—will interact remains to be seen, but the prospects are tantalizing. The AEC comprises a population of about 630 million, and collectively represents the third-largest economy in Asia (after China and Japan), which makes it the fourth- or fifth-largest economy in the world. The AIIB, which has initially signed up nearly 50 contributing countries (although about 30 percent of the bank’s capitalization is being provided by China), has a market that potentially covers a little more than half of the world’s population.
To the conventional Western perspective, however, this is all a bit unnerving. For one thing, unless the new multilateral bank, on the one hand, and the continuing work of integrating the Asean economies, on the other, are managed by complete idiots (here’s a spoiler: they won’t be), the next few years will solidify China’s position as the strongest of the world’s superpowers. Between its reach into other places like Africa and Latin America, the trade significance it already has for the US, Europe, Australia, and non-Asean Asia, and the expanded opportunities the AEC will provide, China’s economic strength and the geopolitical influence it will be able to wield as a result are almost unimaginable.
The AEC, which is already China-leaning (although the Philippines is the somewhat bizarre exception) will, without China having to exert too much effort, have the same effect in this part of the world as the Monroe Doctrine did in the Americas. The South China Sea may as well be a lake, in much the same way as the Caribbean—especially after the renewal of US-Cuba relations—is America’s swimming pool.
It scares Western politicians because it is a rather strong refutation of ideals like democracy. China is a one-party bureaucracy. In the Asean, Vietnam is successfully following the same model. Elsewhere, the strongest democracies in form are in Singapore and Malaysia—both of which have prospered under what amounts to one-party rule. We have two military governments (Myanmar, and at least for the time being, Thailand); a vaguely Russian-style dictatorship (Cambodia); an autocratic sultanate (Brunei); hardcore Communists (Laos); and what are turning out to be corporate states in the Philippines and Indonesia as the two countries’ democratic systems become increasingly dysfunctional.
Whether or not it’s morally right that the world is headed down this path is rather immaterial. It’s the new reality, and coming to grips with it politically and philosophically are going to challenge Western minds for a long time. To this Western mind, some of the implications are uncomfortable; for one thing, the Asian economic model will sharpen degrees of socioeconomic inequality, even though it might lessen its extent.
But it is what it is, and for now, for however long it can last, it’s a gold mine. The Philippines hasn’t quite yet realized it’s living in the middle of one; the signing of the new competition law and the amendments to the cabotage law yesterday were small steps in the right direction, but mostly symbolic ones. Whether or not the next administration will have the capacity to make the more significant changes to help the Philippines catch up is not looking likely so far, given the clownish nature of the early election campaign among four apparently empty-headed candidates.