Call to speed up regional integration

Asian countries should step up the pace of regional integration to prevent the process from losing steam, current and former Asian policymakers said yesterday.

In a panel discussion at the Singapore Forum, they analysed the new challenges to integration - such as the rise of nationalist sentiments - and offered various suggestions on how to overcome them.

Malaysia's Economic Planning Minister Abdul Wahid Omar noted that the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), set to be launched this year, showed "great promise at the start" but its momentum has slowed recently.

Some 80 per cent of the AEC's economic integration targets have been met, but little further progress is expected ahead of a year-end deadline.

Responding to a question by Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy dean Kishore Mahbubani on how Malaysia, as this year's ASEAN chair, can convince the other countries to speed up work on the AEC, Mr Wahid said it is important to be sensitive to whether each country is ready to join the region's single market.

The grouping will adopt a "pragmatic approach" to allow countries that are ready to proceed first and the others to "hop aboard as and when they're ready", he added.

Meanwhile, both Mr P. Chidambaram, India's former finance minister, and Mr Hiroshi Watanabe, governor and chief executive officer of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, agreed that their respective countries should take more of a leading role in promoting integration.

Mr Chidambaram acknowledged that "South Asia is among the laggards" when it comes to regionalism efforts, which have so far been mainly propelled by ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea.

This is partly due to the "barriers" between countries in South Asia, he lamented.

Mr Yu Myung Hwan, South Korea's former minister for foreign affairs and trade, said the biggest threat to regionalism is the resurrection of nationalism, and advised policymakers not to let nationalist sentiments overpower regional integration efforts.

One new initiative that could help strengthen cross-border ties in Asia is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), but it must be careful to preserve its professional integrity and good governance, and not become politicised, said the bank's interim chief, Mr Jin Liqun.

This article was first published on April 12, 2015.
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