Cohesion, unity, and centrality will be affected if some of its members are excluded or left behind, writes Vannarith Chheang
Amid rising nationalism and protectionism in Europe and the US, ASEAN is under mounting pressure to maintain an inclusive and open regional institution, with a collective leadership and efforts to realize a people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN.
An inclusive and participatory regionalism is the foundation of long-term regional peace, stability and prosperity.
Development disparity in Southeast Asia threatens long-term peace and stability, as well as sustainable development. A two-tiered ASEAN is a potential root cause of future political-social ills and conflicts.
ASEAN’s cohesion, unity, and centrality will be affected if some of its members are excluded or left behind as a result of regional economic integration.
Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar are the less developed economies in ASEAN. Their average per capita income is slightly above $1,000. Both hard and soft infrastructures in these countries are far behind those in the developed member countries.
Some efforts have been made to address development disparity and inequality within ASEAN. At the 6th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi in 1998, the ASEAN leaders expressed their political will and commitment to “narrow the development gap among Member Countries to reduce poverty and socio-economic disparity in the region.”
The Hanoi Declaration on Narrowing Development Gap for Closer ASEAN Integration in 2001 gives a roadmap and political commitment to address development gaps. In addition, the Vientiane Action Program (VAP) 2004-2010 outlines regional projects to narrow development gaps.
The most important regional co-operation framework in narrowing the development gaps is the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI), which was launched in 2000. The IAI aims to specifically narrow the development gaps and accelerate economic integration of the newer members of ASEAN.
However, the implementation of the initiative is very limited due to a lack of financial resources.
The IAI Work Plan 2016-2020 adopted last year is composed of five strategic areas, namely food and agriculture, trade facilitation, micro, small and medium enterprises, education, and health and well-being.
The IAI Task Force was also created to monitor the implementation of and give guidance to the initiative.
How to narrow the development gaps?
To narrow the development gaps, the more developed ASEAN members and the dialogue partners of ASEAN need to put more resources to implement the IAI and other regional policies on narrowing the gaps.
ASEAN needs to revitalize and energize the role of IAI by identifying the development gaps, suggesting policy interventions, and mobilizing resources to implement the policy.
More technical assistance is needed to assist the less developed members to catch up with others, especially in institutional capacity building, infrastructure development, and human resources development.
The less developed ASEAN members must expedite their reforms as well. Self-reliance is the core development strategy. And last, but not least, they need to strengthen good governance, promote trade facilitation policy, and attract more foreign investments.
Mr Vannarith Chheang is an academic and political analyst in Phnom Penh.
Cover Photo by Han Hisham.