As the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) get set to discuss a plan for greater regional integration at their annual summit in Singapore this week, the United Nations has emphasized the need for the group to address serious development gaps among its 10 members if it is to move in that direction.
Ten as One: Challenges and Opportunities for ASEAN Integration, a new study by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), was released to coincide with this week’s regional summit, at which leaders will sign the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint.
The study notes that some of the greatest disparities among members relate to environmental and health issues. For example, while the group as a whole contributes a relatively small share of global carbon emissions – about 3.3 per cent of the world total – Brunei Darussalam, Singapore and Malaysia exceed the global average of per capita emissions by a large margin. Brunei Darussalam’s per capita emissions rate is over 60,000 times higher than that of Cambodia.
According to ESCAP, the disparities in health are stark, with child and maternal mortality rates of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar between 11 and 47 times higher than those of Singapore.
Huge gaps also remain among ASEAN members in the areas of trade and investment. Foreign direct investment, for example, has been “heavily skewed,” with four countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam taking in 95 per cent of all FDI inflows. Meanwhile, the study states that such flows between ASEAN members have been “low and stagnant.”
ESCAP emphasizes that efforts towards regional integration will require all ASEAN members to obtain minimum levels of economic and social development if they are to benefit from the envisaged free movement in different areas. The report makes eight recommendations in three key areas where action is required: governance, cohesion policy and trans-ASEAN networks.
Stressing the urgency of addressing development gaps, ESCAP Executive Secretary Noeleen Heyzer stated that, in the long run, “uneven development is unsustainable, as instabilities resulting from disparities will spill across borders into neighbouring countries, involving the movement of displaced people and the transformation of border areas into possible conflict zones.”
Nor is it sustainable to build “firewalls” to contain instabilities rather than address root causes, she added.