ASEAN Connectivity: From Rhetoric to Reality
Dr Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria
Just what would it truly take to bring the region together? Malaysian academic and policymaker Dr Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria weighs in on the debate.
ASEAN HAS ALWAYS BEEN able to articulate its vision and clarify how to become a highly integrated and inclusive region. To that end, there are Blueprints, Masterplans and action plans. However, the challenge is always in implementation. Let’s take connectivity for instance.
To achieve its vision, the Master Plan for ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC 2025) outlines five strategic areas, namely, sustainable infrastructure, digital innovation, seamless logistics, regulatory excellence and people mobility. These five areas are deemed key to enhancing physical, institutional and people-to-people connectivity.
MPAC 2025 is integral to building the ASEAN Community in general, and the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), specifically. There is consistency in the goals of the AEC 2025 Blueprint and MPAC 2025. Both focus on making ASEAN a highly integrated and cohesive economy; competitive, innovative, dynamic and inclusive, as well as people-oriented and people-centred.
So ASEAN got the rhetoric right. Now it’s time to translate that into reality, i.e., implementation. For the implementation of the AEC 2025, there is the Consolidated Strategic Action Plan (CSAP), which comprises 153 measures and 513 actions. Of these, five measures and 28 action lines are related to connectivity in the region. Clearly, there is much to do. ASEAN must go back to basics. It must review its structure for the implementation of its many Blueprints and Master Plans. Structure must be driven by strategy.
Here’s what I mean: it is time to take a holistic approach to implementation. Currently, implementation is divided according to ASEAN’s three pillars: the Political-Security, Economic and Socio-Cultural pillars. Bear with me as I explain the intricacies of the implementation of MPAC. As it stands today, the ASEAN Coordinating Committee for Connectivity (ACCC) is the oversight for MPAC 2025 implementation. ACCC comprises the Permanent Representatives of member states to ASEAN. In other words, these are folks from the Political-Security pillar. Aspects of transportation and logistics of MPAC are assigned to the ASEAN Transport Ministers, which come under the Economic Pillar. And of course the people-to-people dimension of the connectivity Master Plan is left to the folks in the Socio-Cultural pillar. This “siloed” structure is not effective.
The initiatives in MPAC require alignment among all three pillars. For example, physical connectivity involves investment in sustainable infrastructure, seamless logistics and trade facilitation (Economic); skills development Socio-Cultural); and must take into consideration aspects of secure trade, cross-border security issues, as well as movement of skilled and unskilled workers (Political-Security). Similarly, for institutional connectivity. This involves matters of harmonising rules and regulations, standards and conformance, and governance. These call for aligning the business imperative for Mutual Recognition Agreements with relevant and timely skills development. Ultimately, these initiatives cannot be relegated to just any one of the pillars but must see all three coordinating, and aligning the various initiatives to ensure effective implementation.
Ultimately, these initiatives cannot be relegated to just any one of the pillars but must see all three coordinating, and aligning the various initiatives to ensure effective implementation.
HARNESSING PEOPLE POWER, AND MORE
In the case of people-to-people connectivity, let’s just take the case of the business traveller. This is surely not just a matter for the Economic pillar. It involves immigration (Political- Security) and aspects of tourism (Socio-Cultural). The proposals for a single travel visa, or a common visa application form, are very much on the table. It would require policy and decision-makers from all three pillars working together to get these proposals off the ground. We cannot underestimate the impact that ASEAN Open Skies and the Single Aviation Market can have on people-to-people connectivity as well as e-commerce. One just has to look at how the emergence of low-cost carriers has helped with bringing people together. But while working across the three pillars is necessary for the effective implementation of MPAC 2025, it is not sufficient. There must also be deeper engagement with the people, civil society, academia and research bodies, and the business community.
The stated goal of sustainable infrastructure is “smart urbanisation” and better quality of life. Clearly, this goal cannot be met by governments alone. There must be involvement and engagement from various stakeholders. This is similarly true for the strategies for digital innovation, seamless logistics, regulatory excellence and people mobility as well. Such holistic engagement and coordination would effectively make better use of resources, and facilitate improved mechanisms for the sharing of information, research and best practices on the various aspects of connectivity.
MPAC 2025 states that digital innovation requires — among other things — the establishment of regulatory frameworks for the delivery of new digital services (including data management and digital financial services); and equipping micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) with the capabilities to access new technologies. This must involve regulators from across the region, the MSMEs, as well as technology service providers and skills development institutions.
‘Seamless logistics’ meanwhile involves not just physical infrastructure but also customs cooperation, logistics service providers, and research bodies to help identify and overcome the bottlenecks across the supply chains. The work being undertaken by ERIA (Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia), the ASEAN Secretariat and relevant agencies in the ASEAN Members States on the ASEAN Seamless Trade Facilitation Indicators (ASTFI) and the database of Non Tariff Measures are key in helping member states achieve the goal of seamless logistics. In addition, there is also work being done on maritime logistics as well as the ASEAN Open Skies initiative. The challenge now is to integrate and align these initiatves and policy actions.
Work on regulatory excellence involves a candid review of regulations that are impeding seamless trade. Efforts to achieve Good Regulatory Practice and Reducing Unnecessary Regulatory Burden are progressing well and would just require a measure of acceleration. These must be clearly linked to the initiatives on logistics, specifcally those that relate to technical regulations, as well as trade distorting rules and regulations.
There is much that can be done to improve people mobility as well. This includes not just facilitating tourist and business travel but also strengthening skills mobility by establishing high-quality qualification frameworks in critical vocational occupations, and to encourage greater mobility of intra-ASEAN university students.
So the implementation of the five strategic areas outlined MPAC calls for a review of the structure of implementation with ASEAN. The ASEAN Coordinating Committee on Connectivity must do precisely that: coordinate across the pillars. And this should not be limited to just the public sector but civil society, academia and research institutes, as well as making better use of print, electronic and social media.
“To achieve a seamlessly and comprehensively connected and integrated ASEAN that will promote competitiveness, inclusiveness, and a greater sense of Community” - Master Plan for ASEAN Connectivity 2025