PHNOM PENH — Inclusive growth, harnessing the power of technology and simmering geopolitical tensions are among key issues facing the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the bloc celebrates 50 years of existence.
At a CNBC debate during the World Economic Forum's ASEAN meeting on Thursday, a panel of experts identified three key ideas for the region to concentrate on.
Established in late 2015, the ASEAN Economic Community aspires to implement economic and financial integration across member nations. Still, many have wondered whether the region would be better off taking a page from the European Union and embracing a monetary union as well.
"I don't think we need to go so far to have a common union but if we can make borders become connection points in a way so that everybody benefits, you can exist within a trading bloc and not necessarily an EU model," said General Electric Vice Chairman John Rice.
Rather than uniting ASEAN with a single currency, a level playing field boasting free flow of human and financial capital would be more beneficial, Rice continued. "Countries must concentrate on fictional points, the things under the surface in terms of getting permits, approvals and moving goods from one place to the next. Those frictional costs are insidious when it comes to the cost of trade."
There are several lessons ASEAN can learn from the European model, particularly amid current anti-globalization sentiment, added Grete Faremo, under-secretary-general and executive director at the United Nations Office for Project Services.
"It's all about inclusion and leaving no one behind…. What rules of engagement do we have to secure equal opportunities for all?"
Following President Donald Trump's "America First" policy and Washington's exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, many Southeast Asian countries have leaned closer to Beijing, drawn by the promise of mainland investment. Still, the U.S. remains a dominant power in the region as it looks to ward off excessive Chinese influence.
Amid the U.S.-Chinese rivalry, it's essential for ASEAN to refrain from choosing sides, stressed George Yeo, chairman of Kerry Logistics and a former Singaporean politician. "We must be friendly to everyone and embrace a neutral platform so the major economies have a vested interest in our well being."
He added that China's interest in the region, reflected by the country's massive 'One Belt, One Road' project, is a feather in ASEAN's cap. "In the next 10-20 years, ASEAN's infrastructure base will improve beyond recognition. There is a chance that many Southeast countries will now make it to first-world status, this is a historic opportunity… we shouldn't let natural tensions between neighbors get out of hand."
Improvements in internet infrastructure, particularly broadband connectivity and speeds, are essential for development, warned Tan Sri Jamaludin Ibrahim, Axiata Group's managing director and CEO. If broadband is part of the national agenda, governments can accelerate and tap into ASEAN's young population for better growth, he explained.
"It will benefit every aspect of society, particularly with financial inclusion. Broadband is an opportunity for us to leapfrog developed countries."
It's not entirely impossible to eliminate data roaming charges across the region, he added.
"The problem is that there are beneficiaries and losers. For example, Singapore is a beneficiary of roaming because it has lots inbound tourists, while Cambodia is on the other side of the coin. We have to find a mechanism to equate that."