Thailand's economic goals as Asean chair
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Thailand's economic goals as Asean chair

Asean Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi meets Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at Government House on Friday. CHANAT KATANYU
Asean Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi meets Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at Government House on Friday. CHANAT KATANYU

After nearly five years of painstakingly building up diplomatic and economic resilience under military rule, Thailand is embarking on an important mission as the chair of Asean throughout 2019. The stakes are extremely high, judging from the economic agenda set forth by the government.

At Government House on Friday, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Asean Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi took part in the official launch of the Thai chairmanship with all the pomp and pageantry unseen in other member countries. Prominent corporations and government agencies were invited to showcase their contributions to Asean community-building related to green technology, sustainability and innovation.

In comparison with its last chairmanship during a chaotic 2008-2009, in which the April 2009 summit had to be postponed after red-shirt protesters stormed the venue in Pattaya, this time Thailand has prepared a long list of deliverable objectives covering all three pillars of the Asean Community. In retrospect, while the 2008-2009 Asean debacle remains fresh, the accomplishments of the Cha-am, Hua Hin summit in October 2009 during former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's administration must not be forgotten. After all, it was the year the Asean Charter came into effect.

Two milestones for further Asean integration were set. First of all, Thailand managed to push through the first roadmap for the Asean Community from 2009-2015. Later, this was succeeded by the strategic agenda document Asean 2025: Forging Ahead Together announced in Kuala Lumpur in 2015. Secondly, Mr Abhisit was able to garner support from his Asean colleagues for his Master Plan of Connectivity, which subsequently kicked off the "connectivity" efforts that have now spread throughout the region. Now, the new masterplan for 2025 is in place.

For its fourth Asean summit, the Thai chair has worked out grand economic strategies to equip the regional grouping for the so-called 4th industrial revolution (4IR), enhancing Asean connectivity through trade, investment, and tourism. Most importantly, the chair wants to create a holistic environment to enable sustainable economic development in the region.

In addition, Thailand has an ambitious goal to achieve a "people-centred Asean Community, with all 10 members moving forward together and leaving no one behind". It took months before the Ministry of Foreign Affairs finalised the chair's goal under the theme of "Advancing Partnership for Sustainability". The Thai chair has used "people-centred" Asean Community instead of "people-oriented" to show its commitment to promoting the well-being of the community's 645 million people.

To understand the role of serving as Asean chair, one must understand the decade-long evolution of the different phases of Asean community-building, from 2008-2018.

The three initial phases can be summed up as consultation, cooperation and consensus, which were the foundation of Asean solidarity. Then in 2008, as the regional grouping entered its fourth decade, Asean was focused on community-building, connectivity and centrality. All these were pivotal to providing new impetus for Asean relevancy. Today, there are three new phases: creativity, complementarity and continuity. Given the global uncertainty and rise of protectionism, Asean members must be invested in all these phases to make sure that no Asean member is left behind.

Here are the 10 most important economic trends in Asean to watch out for 2019:

1. There will be a concrete action plan for the grouping to adopt a digital integration agenda to ensure Asean's readiness for the 4IR. In addition, there will be a roadmap and expert group set up to implement the Asean Declaration on Innovation (Asean Innovation Roadmap 2019-2025: Partnering for an Innovative Community).

2. By mid-2019, Asean is expected to come up with guidelines to build the skills and professional development of the region's workforce. To meet the challenges posed by the 4IR, Asean must be able to identify priority sectors such as human resources development.

3. The chair will also work on the Declaration on Asean Industrial Transformation to Industry 4.0. It is hoped that by enhancing cooperation among member countries in this area, members can come up with common targeted industries.

4. Digitalisation of micro-enterprises is another new area the chair would like to encourage. It is hoped that a policy direction for promotion could be set to enhance marketing channels for Asean micro-enterprises.

5. The chair will push for further harmonisation of Asean members' national single windows to facilitate seamless trade. It is hoped that by the end of 2019, Asean Single Windows will be fully integrated and operational in line with international best practices.

6. To boost infrastructure development in Asean, the chair plans to develop a mechanism to enhance project bankability and accessibility to attract international institutional investors through the capital market.

7. Tourism is a key economic driver of Asean integration. The chair wants to push Asean tourism to the next level by developing a comprehensive Asean Region of Gastronomy official guidelines and Asean gastronomy tourism network.

8. Making sure the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership will be completed by the end of 2019. The world's largest economic free trade bloc has been delayed for nearly two years. Thailand expects to work with major Asian economic powers such as India, Japan and China to find common ground.

9. Given the recent negative experience regarding illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing among some Asean members, the chair wants to do a feasibility study on the necessity of an Asean General Fishery Policy and set up the Asean IUU Task Force.

10. Finally, the chair is pushing senior Asean economic officials to develop a roadmap and implementation plan to promote a sustainable capital market in the region.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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