IN my column last Monday, I tried to show that the Asean 10 is now the area of unprecedented geopolitical and global economic power pressures. It is happening in this 21st century, when technological advances are almost geometrical and the competition for world hegemony and economic dominance is more complex and intense.

We are all in the eye of these developments when the world has a population of seven billion humans, most of whom are in the middle-income bracket; most of them are either impoverished or within the middle-income bracket. The economic race has polluted the world more than ever in human history. Food and water security, biodiversity and environmental issues are now listed as national or regional security concerns.

The Asean is endowed with rich natural resources, especially with minerals (needed for industrialization and military hardware and weaponry), renewable energy, a population of 620 million (and still counting) and a tropical geography teeming with marine life. The United Nations and the international financial institutions predict the Asean 10 to be the fastest growing region in the next decade. And the Philippines will lead it with a 7.5 percent gross domestic product growth rate.

But this statistically based or scholarly predicted development trajectory will never be realized unless institutional socio-cultural, political and economic changes are made, health and education reinforced, modern scientific production technologies are accepted and laws are enforced by the member governments and obeyed by the citizenry.

A strong political will, practiced under the rule of domestic and international law, is key to attaining the regional—and national—development goals in the 10 Asean countries; and the principles of democracy and a free market economy must be strictly observed.

All the above do not come free. Human progress, obviously fired by economic needs (and wants—on the part of the greedy, and insensitive and unethical) always comes with a price the beneficiaries must pay. Changes are always costly. That is reality!

The Asean economic integration process primer from the Asean secretariat listed down at least 17 goals to be achieved. (Originally, the deadline to accomplish that was 2015. But the collective effort failed). Let me rephrase them for those who want to know:

1) A uniform tax rate for taxable intra-Asean export and import trade.

2) Free flow of finished (manufactured) goods.

3) Free flow of people with technical expertise.

4) Zero tariff (taxes) for intra-Asean services and goods trade.

5) Elimination of non-tariff barriers among Asean members.

6) Integration of customs requirements/regulations, and simplification of procedures to speed up the movement of goods and boost business activities and profitability.

7) Establishment of one common operating clearance center for business information and data where members can retrieve data for business transactions convenience.

8) Free flow of funds and simplification of investment procedures to boost business development and start-ups.

9) Coordinated infrastructure of market tools to hasten development and increase profitability.

10) Strengthen/upgrade/educate human resources to keep up with the global competition for productivity and cost-effectiveness.

11) Uniform banking system and laws to insure free flow of funds and resources for economic progress.

12) Free flow of skilled and special labor or experts in education, industries, and professional services (i.e. medicine, engineering, chemistry, architecture, accounting and auditing).

13) Enhancement or rehabilitation of the environment to insure sustainable ecological balance.

14) Common adherence to intellectual property rights to ensure cooperation in the implementation of a uniform copyrights and patents laws.

15) A common cost-effective source of energy to ensure power supply for economic activities and sustained inclusive growth and progress.

16) A harmonious and cooperative approach to globalization so the raw material sources for production or the supply chain values are assured.

17) Freedom of information, mass media and telecommunications infrastructure to ensure free flow of data for market and strategic information to increase profitability, and the global competitiveness of the single, integrated Asean region a free market economy

So far, really, due to the different levels of economic development, and the cultural-religious differences among the Asean 10, only the free flow of services and expert professionals has been achieved among these 17 goals. Apologists blame the various colonial “masters” who used technologies and military forces to exploit the 10 members.

(The Netherlands colonized Indonesia, the United Kingdom occupied Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma) and Singapore, France was in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Spain, the US and Japan (during the second world war) occupied the Philippines. Thailand alone escaped Western colonization).

But in the present age of information and communications technology, when increased trade war between the superpowers—China, the US and Russia, each with their allies in the Asia-Pacific region—and the probable intensified near-military encounters between the US and China in the Northeast and Southeast Asian regions, the Asean 10 must prioritize their regional stability and security by standing united.

Admittedly, and really, this is a tough job for the Asean members. Why? Because China has claimed the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory which has raised disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan (which Beijing claims is its rebel province, but it has its own duly constituted government, and its own territory that it defends with its US-aided military forces).

Note that Beijing started its economic offensive more than a decade ago, in the guise of a generous and compassionate emerging world economy interested only in a “better life” for all peoples. One undeniable truism: all emerging economies/nations naturally influenced or contaminated less developed nations with their technologies and cultures 10 million years ago.

Using religion as a start of a civilization because it unifies people of the same beliefs, China is still way off unless it can prove it claim in an international court of law. This is because by the published records that anyone can check, India’s Hinduism began in 3,000 B.C.; Judaism started in 2,000 B.C.; China’s Buddhism began in 480 A.D. only; Christianity originated in Rome in 32 A.D. while Islam began in Saudi Arabia in 570 A.D. But when it comes to territorial claims, Beijing refuses to recognize any international arbitration.

The four Asean members are not staking a territorial claim in the South China Sea (except the Philippines on the Panatag or Scarborough Shoal off Zambales in the western seaboard). They are invoking their rights to explore and develop the reefs, atolls and marine areas 200 nautical miles from their farthest shoreline—and benefit from the fruits of their labor that far out at sea.

My suggestion to the ASEAN 10, confronted by the realities of this century, is to look into the real geopolitical and economic purposes of Beijing, the US, Russia and the European Union—their respective national interests vis-à-vis our own national, and collective regional, interests—in our negotiations with these superpowers.

Keep in mind that a common political will is vital to the Asean regional security and stability. Considering our natural resources, the size of our population as a consumer market, sustainable development is extremely important for environmental rehabilitation and conservation preservation.

The upgrading of Asean education to produce efficient managers of resources and the supply chain values must be implemented immediately to empower Asean 10 with a competitive edge.

Asean members must also realize that consensus or no-objection rule in arriving at a regional or group decision on any issue is a tedious, ineffective and obsolete process of decision-making. It must be replaced by a majority-decision rule in this century. (More on this in the next columns.)

Comments and reactions to [email protected] Gil H. A. Santos has covered the Asia-Pacific region as a news correspondent and regional representative for three international wire services and editor-publisher of newspapers in the Philippines and Thailand since 1950. He teaches journalism and geopolitics in the Lyceum of the Philippines University and is president of the Philippine Futuristics Studies and Management Center.