Mon, 10 Jan 2000

Effects of the globalization cast doubt on ASEAN

This is the first of a two part article based on a keynote address by Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand at the conference on Transition and Globalization: Comparative Strategies, organized by The Institute of Security and International Studies on Dec. 17, 1999 in Bangkok.

BANGKOK (JP): I wish to focus on the imperative of reform within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the face of increasing pressures from globalization.

Here in the East, we have a unique attitude toward change and transformation. Fundamentally, we are quite comfortable and always prepared for change. For we believe, as reflected in a Buddhist concept, you cannot step in the same river again -- for the second time -- because, as time passes, water flows. Change is a permanent feature of all things.

But globalization is overwhelming, overpowering, all dimensional, all at once, and all encompassing. We could easily be dazzled and dizzy as a result of globalization.

In the past I have used the term the "tsunami" of globalization to describe this powerful phenomenon that is currently engulfing the world. This metaphor brings to mind a swift and potent force, a nature that is all pervasive and from which where is hardly any escape. This tsunami can have a double- sided nature, depending on how one chooses to deal with it.

On one hand, it can serve as a vehicle towards greater prosperity for those who are capable of riding the crest of the wave, and can harness its energy for their own benefit. On the other hand, the tsunami can also cut a lethal path, destroying those who are slow to react or who try to withstand its torrents.

This, therefore, is the challenge facing ASEAN as we prepare to enter the new millennium. These challenges have been brought about not only by globalization, but also by our expanded membership and increased diversity. How we manage our diversity, our differences, as well as our greater interdependence will be crucial in determining whether we enter the next century in a position of strength or a position of weakness.

The effects of the financial crisis and globalization have already caused others to doubt the relevancy and efficacy of our organization. In response, ASEAN will need to rethink its role and the way it does business. While tremendous success has been achieved during the past few decades by pursuing the "ASEAN Way", we clearly need a new road map and a new vision to guide us into the terra incognita of the future. Indeed, ASEAN will need to adapt, adopt and adjust itself, lest it be engulfed by the tsunami of globalization.

And may I propose to you that the ASEAN Vision 2020 is that road map for the future. Thailand can indeed claim part of the credit for this initiative because we were the ones who proposed that ASEAN would need that road map, that vision.

As you may recall, this Government came into office in November 1997 and then shortly after that we attended the Second ASEAN Informal Summit in Kuala Lumpur. I remember one phrase that we proposed at the Senior Officials' Meeting (SOM) prior to the Summit and that phrase was "open society". Many reacted quite violently against the use of this term.

At Government House here in Bangkok, the question was relayed back from Kuala Lumpur whether Thailand would concede to use some other title instead. Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai said "No", adding that he would bring the matter to the very highest level. Eventually, the SOM conceded, but with some modifications. It goes like this:

"We envision the entire Southeast Asian region to be, by 2020, an ASEAN community conscious of its ties of history, aware of its cultural heritage, and bound by a common regional identity ... We see vibrant and open ASEAN societies consistent with their respective national identities, where all people enjoy equitable access to opportunities for total human development regardless of gender, race, religion, language, or social and cultural background."

For our part, Thailand has undertaken a great many initiatives within ASEAN ever since this Government has taken office. These include pushing "the people's agenda" promoting the concept of social safety nets, and advocating the idea of enhanced interaction (its earlier incarnation was 'flexible engagement', you all know that) -- all of which are intended to strengthen our regional grouping.

As Current Chairman of the ASEAN Standing Committee, I have proposed two main strategies that I believe ASEAN will need to pursue if it is to survive in this globalized world. One is called the "ASEAN Mekong Agenda." This involves the physical development of the new members of ASEAN. The other is the program of Human Resource Development (HRD) within ASEAN -- the human dimension -- again, focusing on the new members.

I am delighted to say that at the recent ASEAN Informal Summit in Manila, both these issues were accorded great significance by our leaders and this was reflected in all the major documents of the Summit as well as in the Joint Statement by the ASEAN 10 + 3. Even more clear, and a direct reflection of this effort, we have the Obuchi Plan by the Prime Minister of Japan proposing exactly that -- greater intellectual exchanges, strengthening the centers of excellence, science and technology in the ASEAN countries. Let us have more exchanges of ideas for the future of Asia.

Allow me briefly to describe each of these proposals, which are mutually reinforcing, starting with the ASEAN Mekong Agenda.

The ASEAN Vision 2000, adopted at the Second ASEAN Informal Summit in Malaysia in December 1997, expressed the conviction that over the next two decades ASEAN would be "moving towards closer cohesion and economic integration, narrowing the gap in the level of development among Member Countries." It also envisions "a stable, prosperous and highly competitive ASEAN Economic Region in which there is... equitable economic development and reduced poverty and socio-economic disparities."

With this in mind, I have proposed the ASEAN Mekong Agenda as a vehicle for reducing the disparities between the other and the never members of ASEAN. As with any society, ASEAN cannot afford to be divided into two groups -- the haves and the have-nots -- if all the members are to march together in tandem towards greater prosperity for all. We have already succeeded in bridging, or at least taming, the ideological divide among all the ASEAN members.

Now is the time to focus on bridging the economic gap. For without progress in this area, we shall not be able to achieve meaningful success in economic schemes vital to ASEAN, such as the ASEAN Free Trade Area, the ASEAN Investment Area, and ASEAN Industrial Cooperation.

I am glad to inform you that on Feb. 12, 2000, there will be a UN-ASEAN Summit to discuss how to cooperate and coordinate our development strategies in this region. All the ASEAN of Heads of State/Government, the United Nations Secretary-General and the heads of all the UN agencies will be present at UNCTAD X in Bangkok. All 190 members of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development -- two more than the total membership of the United Nations -- will participate at the highest possible level. ASEAN as a model for regional development cooperation will be a focus of attention.

The inspiration for the Mekong Agenda stems from the fact that ASEAN has now fulfilled our Founding Fathers' vision of a community of 10 Southeast Asian nations. And now that we are ASEAN 10, we must redouble our efforts toward greater cooperation and integration.

Over the past few years, there has been a proliferation of projects centred around the Mekong sub-region under various titles. As a result, our already limited resources have been spread much too thin for anything substantial to be achieved. It sometimes seemed that we were trying to go in too many directions at the same time and, as a result, we appeared to be going no where.

For this reason, it is essential for ASEAN members to try to identify all the cooperative schemes at the sub-regional level, which may be a duplication of our efforts. Such schemes should be prioritized, harmonized and brought under a more consolidated framework. Rather than proposing a new project, my proposition is merely a call for us all to consolidate our efforts and enhance our cooperation with a view to attaining greater coherency and efficacy in our collaborative efforts.

Without the development of the Mekong sub-region, we will never achieve our dream of an ASEAN Free Trade Area. Deadlines will be missed, passed, unachievable. We need to draw all the resources available into the Mekong sub-region if we want our 500 million strong consumers to really be 500 million strong consumers. Otherwise, this dream will elude us.