From: The Jakarta PostBy Abdul Khalik and Andi Haswidi, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Stressing that closer economic cooperation among East Asian countries is the key to increased prosperity, Vice President Jusuf Kalla has urged businesspeople and government officials to find ways of overcoming the obstacles hindering economic integration.
Speaking Thursday during an international symposium on the possible establishment of an East Asian Free Trade Area, Kalla warned that gaping income disparities between the countries of the region, as well as differing legal and governmental systems, and levels of infrastructural development, could present major hurdles to greater integration.
A number of countries, he said, had per capita incomes of less than US$1,000 while others had per capita incomes of more than $20,000.
"It's like the chicken and the egg. It could be a problem if we pursue economic cooperation without closing the gap first, but it will take years to overcome the gap. So, the challenge is how to find a harmonious way of achieving both," he told the symposium, organized by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Japan Economic Foundation (JEF).
Leaders from the region floated the idea of creating an East Asian Community during the first East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last year.
The leaders from the ASEAN countries, plus China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand, will meet again next month in Cebu, the Philippines, to discuss how to proposal could be implemented.
Many say that the 16 countries together could overtake other groupings, including the European Union and the North American Free Trade Area as it would account for half of the world's population, or more than 3 billion people, and a quarter of the world's total GDP of about US$8.3 trillion.
Kalla said he strongly supported greater regional economic cooperation as the ASEAN) countries, including Indonesia, faced strong competition not only from countries like the United States, but also from big neighbors like China, Japan and South Korea.
Another challenge, Kalla said, was how to combine different levels of technological advancement, human resources development and natural resources endowment so as to produce a solid economic community that was able to compete with other regions.
"Another question is what sort of value system will we use? Will we adopt American or European values? I say we should adopt Asian values in our cooperation. We can feel these values inside ourselves," Kalla said.
He characterized Asian values as a system of ethics that prioritized cooperation over competition.
"It is also about how to say yes and no without causing hard feelings. They won't be easy to apply, but we should try rather than copying other systems and values," Kalla said.
He said that intellectuals, businesspeople and government officials should continue to heighten awareness in society that the ultimate objective of free trade was increased prosperity, rather than to create cutthroat competition within the region.
While acknowledging that Asian values were important for imparting a sense of identity, economist Djisman Simandjuntak of the CSIS said that people would only benefit from freer trade and freer investment if they improved their competencies and skills.
When it came to competencies, societies in this part of the world differed greatly, he added.
Because of this, any regional trade agreement for East Asia needed to pay a great deal of attention to development cooperation.
"I think that any agreement should focus precisely on narrowing the gaps between less developed members and more developed ones, and between people living in poverty and people living in abundance," he told the audience.
Djisman suggested that the region should start with education and training in order to disseminate the knowledge and skills that were needed so that people could benefit from the removal of barriers to the trade in goods and services.