The Asian Voice

Asia needs more dialogue on trade: The Nation columnists

Container boxes are seen at the Yangshan Deep Water Port, part of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, in Shanghai.
Container boxes are seen at the Yangshan Deep Water Port, part of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, in Shanghai.PHOTO: REUTERS

Shashwat Goenka and Frank-Jurgen Richter

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Many of Asia's nations evolved from colonial influences in the 1950s - they are still young, yet several have ancient histories.

India nurtured the development of several world religions while China was united for millennia before a civil war that, when it ended in 1949, gave birth to the People's Republic of China.

Across Asia, leaders often enjoy long tenures, yet these are interspersed by years of rapid change which unsettle heads of business, who need stability to plan strategically, and destabilise the workforce with job insecurity.

Asia in general is rising, with economies growing and turmoil diminishing. Yet deep tensions remain. Myanmar, a nation which in 2010 embraced democracy, is challenged by the Rohingya issue. Such religious tensions are on the rise in Asia, and inter-communal riots are becoming more commonplace. Social and economic changes play a major role here, especially in the dizzying transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

Asia's people are naturally discursive, using many tongues, and they typically take a long time to reach consensus. Persuading people to change is difficult when old beliefs carry the weight of tradition. Thus it is vital to deconstruct the logic of religious and racial discrimination often inherited from earlier colonialists if we are to put an end to conflict and violence once and for all.

To this end, and also to boost economies through dialogue and cooperation, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) was formed in 1967. The grouping promotes economic, political and security cooperation among its 10 founder members - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In 1997 Asean+3 was formed to include China, South Korea and Japan; 2005 saw the addition of India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the United States as associate members.

Gradually we see Asia emerging as a massive economic grouping with satellites orbiting as "observers". Oversight is currently crucial as North Korea and the US engage in a war of words - with China, Russia, South Korea as well as the UN Security Council attempting to diffuse the tension and also seeking to persuade North Korea to quit its nuclear weapons development.

Again we see the need for regional dialogue to raise the prospect of peace and economic development. It is tempting to imagine a united Asia creating a forum for widespread development of economies, social reform and better governance.

Asean is the world' seventh largest economy, with combined GDP of US$2.6 trillion (S$3.53 trillion), and is projected to rise to fourth by 2050. But it has not yet achieved its major goal of economic integration.

The launch of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 was viewed as a step in that direction, but it still lacks a common regulatory framework, ultimately preventing Asean from becoming a major economic player. However, the AEC Blueprint 2025, which contains broad economic directions and strategic measures for the next decade, also focuses on economic integration.

But to meet its own declared goals as well as those of the UN, it must overcome long-running human rights issues. And it must advance strong views about better governance among its highly vocal members, who seem to lack a strong mandate from their own people, who themselves perhaps fear losing their identity within the larger grouping.

Our continent remains a disparate entity of five major regions - Southeast, East, Central, South and Southwest Asia (also known as the Middle East) - home to four billion people. Their economies are defined as developing, like Afghanistan and the Central Asian nations; or "graduated developed" (China); developed (Japan, South Korea and Singapore); or still undeveloped (Bangladesh and Myanmar).

These classifications can change according to how you interpret national statistics but one aspect remains constant - with increased and equitable trade, all economies can grow.

Discussion about trade will be the focus for CEOs, ministers and academics at the Horasis Asia Meeting, in Kolkata on November 26-27. Delegates will engage in open dialogue to explore ways of invigorating trade and discovering and seizing opportunities.

Ministers will explain their choices, and business leaders reveal their strategies, in the hope of reversing the uncertainty created by President Donald Trump's yanking the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the globe's largest-ever free trade deal.

Business leaders need political stability to plan long term and to develop joint ventures. Developing the TPP took heads of state of 12 nations many years of discussions to acknowledge the needs of 800 million people, and to mobilise business leaders for far-reaching aims.

The Horasis Asia Meeting will go a long way to rectifying the TPP void left by US withdrawal, through its plenary and panel discussions and especially through more intimate boardroom dialogue discussions during which new accords might be built.

Two new multi-nation developments will be a focus for discussions in Kolkata. One is China's Belt and Road initiative created by President Xi Jinping, which aims to link China to Europe by land, and to Africa and Europe by sea. President Xi is hopeful that these routes will stimulate growth and innovation hubs along their paths.

India too has trade aspirations, having reached an accord with Japan to create an Asian-African corridor that acknowledges India's African diaspora and will also act as an innovation conduit.

Naturally under-developed nations might be wary of these moves, even if conjoined in their development, while developed nations might consider negotiating trade accords to enact new pan-Asian or Pan-European agreements. These two developments deserve discussion, and will get it in Kolkata.

Dialogue is the key in guiding governments and businesses in their future plans. This guidance can reduce apprehensions through an appreciation of others' views, and help new joint ventures emerge with greater confidence. The Horasis Asia Meeting in Kolkata will be crossroads for that regional and global discussion.

Shashwat Goenka is president of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Frank-Jurgen Richter is chairman and founder of Horasis, an independent international organisation committed to enacting visions for a sustainable future.