[Editor’s Note: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has begun a process of integration to forge an Asean Economic Community. But the rise of protectionism in Europe and North America is seen as a possible barrier to access these crucial markets for the success of the project. In this context, VOA Khmer’s Aun Chhengpor recently spoke with Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh by email about Asean’s commitment to global trade, and the progress and pitfalls of integration.]
VOA: How does Asean view the uncertainties in the West, especially the British exit from the European Union? What are the lessons ASEAN can learn?
Le Luong Minh: Brexit happened against a backdrop of concerns over sovereignty, immigration and unequal contributions versus benefits of being an EU member. The Asean context is markedly different as Asean works on the principle of consensus and Member States retain their sovereignty. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned. While the economic benefits of integration have not been challenged in the Brexit context, a good lesson from this is the imperative that regional integration should bring benefits to all members and the need to ensure sustained stakeholders’ buy-in. Thus the importance of public awareness and understanding of the benefits of regional integration are crucial to generate and retain public buy-in and support, as well as to address any possible misconception on the causality between regional integration and domestic challenges.
Does Asean view it as a good time to take a larger role in regional and global leadership?
There are already various established mechanisms and concrete cooperation within the orbit of the Asean Community which have produced tangible results, for the benefits of the Asean people, including the respective stakeholders. Since its founding, Asean has been constantly working to maintain peace and stability in Southeast Asia. It has provided the region a foundation for economic and socio-cultural development opportunities. Ensuring the safety of our peoples will always be key to Asean. Asean keeps its citizens safe from both traditional and non-traditional security threats, such as climate change, pandemics, natural disasters and transnational crimes in its various forms.
Some view Asean's integration as cautious. Is it the right time for Asean to speed up economic integration among its member states?
The view on an appropriate speed of regional integration is prone to subjectivity. At the time of the formal establishment of the Asean Economic Community on 31 December 2015, which met the target set by the leaders. Asean is unique in its pursuit of regional economic integration. With a strong emphasis on a rules-based, people-oriented and people-centered community, there is a strong focus in ensuring that all Member States, regardless of their levels of development, are able to be active participants in and beneficiaries from the regional economic integration agenda. In this regard, Asean acknowledges the fact that some Member States may require additional time in meeting their regional commitments, and therefore, concrete measures and specific initiatives are put in place to assist them.
Were there any difficulties for Asean in the first year of the AEC?
The first year of implementation of the A.E.C. Blueprint 2025 was focused on putting in place the fundamentals for effective operationalization of the new Blueprint, the adoption of various A.E.C. sectoral work plans, and the endorsement of the A.E.C. 2025 Monitoring and Evaluation Framework. One key challenge was on ensuring awareness and meeting expectations on the A.E.C. Stakeholders’ common responses to the establishment of the A.E.C. are either an expectation of a transformative overnight change or a lack of awareness of what it actually entails. Hence, efforts would need to be continuously strengthened in enhancing outreach and communication and in ensuring a participatory and consultative regional agenda. Stakeholder engagement will be fostered in line with the objective of an inclusive, people-oriented, and people-centered Asean. Externally, the inaugural year of the A.E.C. started in an uncertain global economic and political environment. The global economy was mired in sub-par growth with adverse consequences on both international trade and foreign direct investment. Asean has had to also to face the threat of rising latent protectionism observed across the globe particularly in the major advanced economies.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.