We are in the Solaire Resort and Casino, on Aseana Avenue just beyond Roxas Boulevard on the reclaimed coast of Manila Bay. Banish any misleading nuances to the chosen venue, we are not here to play nor to gamble, for these three days Nov. 12 to 14, are for non-inebriated talk and sober plans. It is the premiere annual business event of the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ABAC): the 2017 ASEAN Business and Investment Summit (ABIS), “World Leaders’ Road map Towards Prosperity for All,” hosted by ASEAN founding member, the Philippines.
The ABAC serves as a platform for conversations among regional and global stakeholders in the ASEAN Economic Community — business leaders, public personalities, entrepreneurs, and entities considered as thought-leaders in their respective fields. ABIS is the annual forum that processes these various inputs into resolutions and consensual strategies towards achieving the goals of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) 2025 (www.abis2017.com).
Among the topics of conversation would be the multichannel connectivity, infrastructure development, entrepreneurial empowerment, disruptive innovation, policy directions in trade, issues that affect businesses which ABAC and its partners have been collectively resolving, and other trendsetting topics that have been the decisive and priority concerns of ASEAN and world leaders today (Ibid.).
Leaders of the 10 ASEAN member-nations Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam — have invited top leaders of “dialogue partners”: China, US, Russia, Japan, Korea, Canada, India, and Australia for collective discussions towards collaborative efforts on mutually beneficial trade and economics, as well as support and assistance on security and social development.
Yesterday, opening day of ABIS 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte, assisted by ABAC Chair Jose Ma. Concepcion III (RFM Corp.) led the launch of the ASEAN Mentorship for Entrepreneurs Network (AMEN).
Concepcion said that some 280 established entrepreneurs, business practitioners and academicians have signed up for AMEN, with the Philippines contributing 53 pioneer mentors in this flagship project of the ABAC (InterAksyon, 05 Nov 2017). Soft power, Korea University professor (ex-South Korea foreign minister) Han Sun Joo might approvingly say of this, versus “hard power” (e.g., military threat; hard-sell trade) approach in the new normal of today’s changed world.
At an earlier privately sponsored business conference “ASEAN at 50” (Aug. 3-4) on the prospects for ASEAN’s viability, Prof. Han said that “there are (now) plenty of risks and only a limited number of opportunities for ASEAN (The Philippine Star, 07 Aug 2017).” Han identifies the problems: China with its economic might and appetite for territory (e.g. in the South China Sea — for strategic positioning); and North Korea with its weapons of mass destruction, pose grave security threats when “East Asia doesn’t really have a security mechanism to deal with ‘high security’ issues (Ibid.).”
ASEAN must be a true community — “must not be divided among themselves, otherwise, if they cannot make up their mind about which way they would go, ASEAN will leave the door open for the big contending powers (China and the US) to meddle in how ASEAN would proceed,” Prof. Han cautions.
In the same conference cited, Mari Pangestu, professor of International Economics at the University of Indonesia (former Minister of Trade) added to perceived added risks for ASEAN: the threat of protectionism rising in advanced countries (note US President Trump’s “America First”) urged by the post-global financial crises slowdown, and also the self-disciplined cooling down of the Chinese economy. Look what the Brexit or Britain’s withdrawal from the EU tells us about the future of regional trade groups, aka “communities,” Prof. Pangestu warns (Ibid.).
Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Thailand, deplored that ASEAN is not yet a true community though it hoped more than a decade ago to interface ASEAN leaders and civil society organizations in constant dialogue and consultation.
“The latest ASEAN Vision 2025 outlines more than 500 action plans to transform ASEAN into a people-oriented and people-centered organization; this vision also further includes measures to transform ASEAN into a democratic community promoting and protecting human rights,” Chongkittavorn, columnist at The Nation newspaper, and Editor-in-Chief and CEO of Myanmar Times, said of seeming lapses in the human side of a trade organization such as ASEAN.
Columnist Rafael Alunan III (formerly Secretary of Tourism; Secretary of Interior and Local government), decries that “the idea of ASEAN as a ‘community’ with ‘shared values’ has yet to be understood, internalized and practiced by its diverse populace (BusinessWorld, 07 Nov 2017).” He reminds us that “at the 14th ASEAN Summit, the ASEAN Socio-cultural Community Blueprint was adopted…envision(ing) a people-centered and socially responsible community with enduring solidarity and unity, forged by a common identity of a society that cares and shares. Human and ecological security; building the ASEAN brand; and narrowing development gaps would be the focus areas (Ibid.).”
ASEAN does not have that common identity (yet).
Perhaps if ASEAN member-nations can be honest among themselves, and be forthright about individual fears, grievances and perhaps insecurities about economic and development inequalities — then a brotherhood and support system will naturally evolve and there would be the common identity needed for the viability of the organization. Otherwise, if the openness and sincerity will not urge the support, there would be no reason to be together.
In the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit (ABIS) 2017, members should be able to openly discuss and objectively analyze threats and risks to one — which should be threats and risks to all in the community.
Towards the ABIS conference theme “World Leaders’ Road map Towards Prosperity for All” — shall ASEAN-ABAC discuss the “elephants in the room”: the number two (soon to be number one?) economic/military power in the world, China, and its claims in the South China Sea/Philippine Sea and other ASEAN maritime territories; the threat of nuclear attack by North Korea; the growing terrorism in the region; the pandemic drug trafficking and use; and the unmentionable but ominous alleged extrajudicial killings and human rights violations not just here in the Philippines but in the region?
And by the way, may we please ask the non-ASEAN “dialogue” partners (those humongous elephants) to step out of the room? ASEAN-ABAC has family matters to discuss.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.