COLUMN-OPINION: ASEAN – A potent force

 In all major posts around the world, diplomats from member-nations of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) regularly get together to strengthen cooperation in many areas of mutual concern. The ASEAN Committee in Washington (ACW) is one such group, composed of ambassadors of ASEAN member-nations to the United States.

The chairmanship of the ACW is on a quarterly rotation basis, with the group meeting regularly to discuss ways to strengthen the partnership between ASEAN and the United States and promote the role of the regional bloc, among many others. Myanmar holds the ACW chairmanship for the first quarter, after which the Philippines will assume the chairmanship for the second quarter.

I hosted my first formal sit-down dinner for ASEAN ambassadors to the United States at the official residence in Washington, D.C. to thank them for the warm welcome they accorded me when I took up my post as Philippine Ambassador to the United States last November.


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Joining us were Ambassador Ashok Kumar Mirpuri of Singapore, Ambassador Aung Lynn of Myanmar and Madam Kay Thi Kyi Wynn, Malaysian Ambassador Tan Sri Zulhasnan Rafique, Ambassador Budi Bowoleksono of Indonesia, Ambassador Pham Quang Vihn of Vietnam, Ambassador Mai Sayavongs of Lao PDR, as well as Thailand’s Minister Counselor Vorapun Srivoranart and Second Secretary Izzat Hayati Zakaria of Brunei Darussalam.

The dinner also provided an opportunity for me to thank my fellow ASEAN diplomats for their respective nations’ support for the chairmanship of the Philippines during the 31st ASEAN summit and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the regional group. Expressing appreciation on behalf of the guests was Singaporean Ambassador Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, a very articulate man who has been assigned to Washington since July 2012.

No doubt the founding of ASEAN is one of the best things that has ever happened in the Asia Pacific region, with the importance of the subgroup having become very evident.

The Southeast Asian region is the sixth largest economy in the world with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $2.6 trillion, and it is poised to become the fourth largest economy by 2030. The economic growth of Southeast Asia in the last two decades has been nothing short of remarkable. In fact, it has been acknowledged as the fastest growing region in the world, exhibiting robust growth at 5.2 percent for 2017.

Its combined population of over 630 million – the third largest in the world after China and India – makes it a very attractive market that offers huge opportunities for many industries even beyond the Asia Pacific region. The growing middle class as well as the skilled workforce are key factors in unlocking the huge economic potential of the region.

Among the 10-member nations, the Philippines has been hailed as the fastest growing economy in ASEAN according to the World Bank – a projection that is shared by international credit rating agency Moody’s Investors Service that said it expects the Philippines to post the strongest growth in 2018.

There is no doubt that ASEAN is strategically important to the United States economically, politically and geographically. It is a potent force being the fourth largest trading partner of the US. The two-way trade of goods stood at $234 billion in 2016, with the US exporting over $100 billion in goods and services to the region in 2015. In fact, many American multinational companies are present in Southeast Asia. According to the US-ASEAN Business Council, overall bilateral US-ASEAN trade from 2004 to 2015 has grown at an average annual rate of 5 percent.

Adding to the attraction of the region are plans of countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines to increase their infrastructure spending on big-ticket projects that include high-speed railways, mass transportation systems and power plants, with studies indicating that ASEAN will allocate over $100 billion yearly for infrastructure projects in the next decade. Aside from speeding up growth, the huge infrastructure spending is expected to generate more employment which in turn would result in higher incomes and more consumption.

However, the region also faces serious threats, foremost of which is terrorism which has been described as “a severe threat to ASEAN’s progress, prosperity and very way of life,” according to a joint statement following the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in Singapore last Tuesday. Member nations have agreed to increase cooperation to counter terrorism and improve ASEAN’s resilience against terrorist attacks.

That ASEAN is “an increasingly important region” for the US was emphasized by Tina Kaidanow, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, who said that the US has committed itself at the highest level toward stability in the region, with Washington’s engagement spanning from military to counterterrorism cooperation.

Security in the Asian region was actually one of the topics discussed during meetings we arranged for Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano at the Capitol with some US congressmen and senators that included Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, Rep. Pete Olson of Texas, and Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska. I accompanied the Secretary and I personally think the meetings went very well, with wide-ranging discussion on many issues such as our relationship with our neighbors, free trade between the Philippines and US, defense and security, including the opening of a consulate in Houston, Texas.

Undoubtedly, our good working relationship and strong friendship with our fellow ASEAN diplomats have collectively given us a very important and significant voice in the White House and the Capitol.

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Email: [email protected] / February 11, 2018 – 12:00am

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