Asian Cities

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on November 28, 2007

Integration is inevitable

Last week, heads of state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China, Japan, and South Korea signed a charter meant to provide the legal framework for increased political and economic integration within Asia. Economic liberalization, increased protection for intellectual property rights, and security are among the priority concerns of the heads of state and other government executives that signed the charter in Singapore.

That it took ASEAN 40 years to get around to codifying the legal principles under which ASEAN member states interact with each other and the world underlines the increasing urgency of the officials’ concerns. And that’s not all. According to a statement issued by ASEAN, the charter reveals a shift in perspective within the association from state to people. “Adherence to democratic values, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are stipulated in three separate places in the charter: the Preamble, the Purposes, and the Principles.”

The Charter will have to be ratified by each member state, and will only come into force 30 days after all countries have done so. Critics of ASEAN have complained since it was founded that the association has little practical purpose, and has failed to accomplish anything of significant political, social, or economic value in its earnest desire to avoid interfering in members’ internal affairs.

Although no one expects radical changes if and when the charter is ratified, its signing demonstrates increasing acknowledgement that ASEAN must truly integrate in order to remain globally competitive. But there are large warning signs that nothing much may have changed. For example, “the charter permits flexible participation in the implementation of economic commitments.”

In other words, if a country is unwilling to participate in economic integration, it doesn’t have to. Presumably, members are relying on peer pressure within the association to encourage recalcitrant countries to get with the program. But such hopes have proved futile in the past. Indeed, decision making under the charter will continue to be “based principally on consultation and consensus.”

The charter includes provisions that are meant to help align perceptions of the association with ASEAN. For instance, English is affirmed as the principal working language. A motto, “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” is apparently meant to encourage the people of Asia to focus on common priorities. Given Asia’s geographic sprawl and diverse cultures, that’s obviously a huge goal. But the charter is a start.

ASEAN’s new charter represents efforts by member states to foster cooperation and integration. Another regional group meeting in Manila last week is championing regional cooperation on an urban scale. Mayors and other representatives of the Asian Network of Major Cities 21 (ANMC21) met here to discuss issues related to increasing urbanization within Asia, and global warming (Full Disclosure: My firm was retained to organize the ANMC21 meeting.).

The meeting, which ends today, was the sixth such gathering of high-level local officials across the region, and it was hosted by the Metro Manila Development Authority. The eleven members are Bangkok, Delhi, Hanoi, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei, Tokyo, Yangon, and of course Metro Manila, represented by MMDA chairman Bayani Fernando.

Among the prominent officials present in the meeting were Shintaro Ishihara, the charismatic and often controversial governor of Tokyo; Dr. Ing Fauzi Bowo, governor of Jakarta; and, Dato Hakim Borhan, governor of Kuala Lumpur. Concurrent to the meeting, ANMC21 organized an exhibit showcasing member cities and cultural presentations at the Mall of Asia. The Asia Performing Arts Festival (APAF), featuring dance companies and other performers from Manila, Hanoi, Delhi, Taipei, Seoul and Tokyo, performed at Centerstage.

The projects member governments have undertaken vary significantly in scope and purpose. On one extreme is a project to promote the development of a small- to medium-sized jet passenger plane being pushed by Tokyo. The idea is that Asia should lessen its dependence on western aircraft manufacturers by developing its own technology for high-performance jet aircraft. Production would be spread around Asia, similar to the way Airbus aircraft are built.

Seoul, on the other hand, is pushing a project called “Participation of Women in Society,” with obvious objectives meant to improve the productive contribution of women to the economy. Other projects include reducing infectious diseases, establishing crisis networks, implementing a regional tourism promotion campaign, promoting Asian performing arts, and professionalizing urban development management.

Member cities are gearing up for other exciting projects as well. Taipei outlined a program for the development of intelligent cities, with the slogan Ubiquitous Intelligent Taipei 2010. The program is meant to increase Taipei’s attractiveness to both investors as well as smart people it needs to attract to continue economic expansion. To that end, it’s also developing new programs to acclimate immigrants.

Regional integration is inevitable, although there are some mighty challenges that inhibit progress. Efforts like those of ANMC21 are important means to breaking down those barriers.

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