Time for Asean to focus on integration

Time for Asean to focus on integration

As storm clouds hang over the global economy, Asean is perceived as one of the fastest growing and more stable economic regions. This presents an opportunity to strengthen relationships with other partners, such as through China's Belt and Road Initiative and the US-initiated Free and Open Indo Pacific Plan, which is backed by Australia, India and Japan.

Southeast Asia's economy today is worth US$3.1 trillion and the region comprises a market of more than 640 million people. It is a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurship and is forecast to become the world's fourth largest economy by 2030.

By taking advantage of these strengths, Asean can deliver more consistent opportunities and economic results across the association when its members commit more fully to regional integration.

Currently some members are committed to open and free trade with regional counterparts, while others remain cautious about real-world concerns, such as how certain homegrown industries may not yet be strong enough to compete with more developed businesses from within the region.

Mitigating these issues poses a significant challenge given Asean's norm of respecting sovereignty, non-interference, consensus and flexibility. Moreover, countries in Asean are also at very different stages of development with diverse interests.

For example, Laos needs to develop energy projects as part of its development plan and its needs may be very different from those of other countries such as Singapore. It is also worth noting that the size of region's two largest economies, Indonesia and Thailand, is roughly equivalent to the other eight combined.

While Asean countries may face challenges in reaching mutual agreements, the association has excelled in developing pragmatic responses to diverse problems. Furthering regional integration will require a fine balancing act to ensure the challenges, concerns and limitations of all stakeholders, as well as real-world problems of each member state, are taken into account, but I am confident we can move forward in this respect.

A good first step would be to remember what makes us strong as a region. Apart from cheap labour which still plays a role in some economies, collectively we are playing a key role in global supply chains. Our own markets are highly dynamic, and we border the world's two most populous countries, China and India.

In the past, individual countries may have felt they needed to choose between international development approaches, selecting the US over Japan, for example. Today, we are in a different position. We should first consider our needs and those of our fellow members and also realise that we can work with as many partners as we choose, for example by engaging with both the Free and Open Indo Pacific Strategy and China's Belt and Road Initiative.

The more integrated our trade, the more attractive we are to other markets and investors and the stronger we become.

Suwatchai Songwanich is the CEO of Bangkok Bank (China).

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