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Asian Nations Must Look to Neighbors as Partners

December 12, 2012

By Katherine Loh

When President Obama made his first post-election international trip last month to Southeast Asia, his message was clear: as Asia becomes the driver of global politics in the coming decades, the U.S. is strategically reorienting its presence in the region. But the U.S. is not the only one that recognizes a need for reorientation – Asia itself does too.

In November, 16 Asia-Pacific nations – the 10 ASEAN nations and their six major regional trading partners, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea – announced that they would begin negotiations on a sweeping new trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, this grouping “includes more than 3 billion people, has a combined GDP of about $17 trillion, and accounts for about 40 percent of world trade.” While the scope of this regional initiative is impressive, it need not be viewed as rivalrous to the Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative that the Obama administration launched last year (which would include the U.S. but exclude China). Rather, this model of regional interaction augurs a future in which the Asia Pacific can, will, and must continue looking to itself as an important source for trade and investment partners, strategic geopolitical allies, and the goods, services, and innovations that benefit its workers and businesses.

For this model to succeed, however, Asia must look to its neighbors not as competition for scarce resources, but as partners in the mutual resolution of serious social, economic, political, environmental, and human rights issues crisscrossing its borders. An integrated Asia will require harmonized laws that protect migrant worker safety and stop human trafficking, while encouraging the flow of high-skilled workers. It will require a combination of science and research policies that encourage innovation and technology transfer with courts that protect intellectual property rights. It demands education policies that tap bright young Asian minds and enhance cross-fertilization through educational exchanges. It will call for the nurturing of a cadre of professionals in the private and public sectors to address the causes and consequences of climate change and environmental degradation, including disaster response and crisis management. It will hinge upon the strengthening of public health institutions to address major public health events that disregard borders, like SARS and Avian influenza. And of course, it will require strong Asian financial institutions and banking and regulatory policies that encourage investment and stable economic growth, while mitigating risks to investors, producers, and ultimately, consumers.

What all these issues have in common is the need for laws, policies, institutions, individuals, and leaders to guide nations and the region. Yet in many parts of Asia, laws meant to protect may not yet exist, or if they do, are poorly enforced; policies meant to foster or enable may remain tabled or unimplemented; institutions meant to govern may lack strength; and citizens meant to speak up may not have a voice. What is needed in this already complex, multilayered, and interdependent region are institutions of good governance that can propel and sustain Asia’s path to prosperity.

As Asia prepares for greater economic and political integration, empowering citizens – whether parents, teachers, farmers, businessmen, or consumers – with the tools, information, skills, and space to make informed decisions will be critical to ensuring an Asia that is equitable and free of conflict.

Katherine Loh is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Economic Development Programs. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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