Fifty years since its establishment, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has made remarkable achievements in fostering regional stability and co-operation. These are important contributing factors for socioeconomic growth that have translated into impressive poverty reduction and a prosperity boost for hundreds of millions of people. Across its 10 member nations, ASEAN is now home to 636m people, a more than 400m work force, around 300m internet users, and an ever growing middle class.
The ASEAN region has benefitted from regional stability, sound macroeconomic policies and ongoing efforts to minimise trade barriers. However, the 10 economies that make up this regional grouping remain at different stages of progress. This is despite the fast-increasing exchanges of people, goods, technology and ideas between them. ASEAN needs to create a framework that can be seen by each member country to be a good platform for everybody to participate and make the same progress towards prosperity.
In the last two years, we have witnessed an increasing trend of protectionism and possible full-blown trade wars in other parts of the world. Beyond ASEAN, the threat of a full-blown trade war between the United States and China will have ramifications in this region and potentially damage the socioeconomic progress made to date. In 2015, when all nations collectively came up with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the world was very optimistic that poverty could be reduced to almost zero in our lifetime. But with the current environment, this kind of optimism is going to be very difficult to sustain.
Indonesia and the region have been enjoying the benefit of international trade for many years. The threat of trade wars could potentially affect the socioeconomic achievements thus far. The ASEAN region will most likely bear losses from uncertainties arising from such trade policies. ASEAN also needs to capture the lessons learned from current developments in advanced economies and be cognisant of the plight of the “losers” arising from trade openness.
This region can still be making more progress, but be extremely mindful about the consequences for those who are left behind. Failure to address this aspect could potentially set ASEAN back. With social media, the feeling of exclusion from socioeconomic growth can be transmitted and become a sentiment that can damage the progress which is being made.
At the same time, the region needs to face and adapt to the emergence of technological disruption. This trend is creating opportunities and uncertainties on the social structures and disrupting jobs in the region. Technological advancements will further spur economic transformation, but at the same time have the potential to widen inequality. ASEAN must also be cognisant of the fate of the “losers” of economic transformation in its effort to promote more integration. Policymakers in the region need to think about effective safety nets that would allow them to catch up, equip them with the necessary skills to adapt to change, and enable them to enjoy the benefits from greater regional integration.
Thus, ASEAN will have to think about what kind of integration it wants and how it can be improved. Efforts to increase trade openness should not just be for the sake of reducing the obstacles on tariff or non-tariff barriers. Cross-border trade has bolstered economic growth in ASEAN and created new growth potentials for our growing middle income population.
ASEAN member states need to take more proactive roles in defining the trade architecture and advocating the rules-based system. Being part of the global supply chain, ASEAN should find ways to mitigate the potential consequences from disruptions arising from trade wars. At the same time, ASEAN economies should also strengthen their domestic growth engine, including consumption and investment. Furthermore, the investment climate for both domestic and foreign investors should be improved, especially in high-productivity sectors.
In light of technological advancements, ASEAN urgently needs to identify priorities and craft relevant policies, governance approaches, geopolitical relationships, and new strategy to open new pathways to prosperity and promote inclusive growth.
In Indonesia and across the region, policymakers are getting up to speed on what it takes to support the new economy, reap the benefits from technological advancements, increase intra-regional trade, boost prosperity across the board, and adapt to the current global economic landscape.
The good news is that ASEAN remains one of the drivers of global economic growth. The aggregate growth of ASEAN 5 (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam) is expected to reach 5.3% and 5.4% in 2018 and 2019 respectively — better than the average global growth of 3.9% for that same period.
As ASEAN’s largest economy, Indonesia can still maintain healthy fundamentals amidst this global economic challenges. This performance has been supported by record high investments in the last five years, increased trade volume compared to last year, and stable inflation. Our economy grew by 5.27% in the second quarter of this year. And for the first time in our history, the poverty rate was able to be brought down to a single digit at 9.82%.
We are not pretending that we know everything, but we learn from others. We listen, we engage and we communicate so we are able to adjust the policy in a positive way.
ASEAN has the spirit of perseverance and will keep our eyes on the ball towards the longer term goal. As ASEAN grows, all its people must prosper. A rising tide must lift all boats.
Sri Mulyani Indrawati is the finance minister of Indonesia. She is also co-chair of the World Economic Forum on ASEAN and chair of the World Bank Group’s Development Committee.