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The Asean dream

June 15, 2012

FOR quick confirmation of the rise of Asia, do what I just did: spend some time at Bangkok international airport, revelling in the buzz and excitement generated by a region where the sky is the limit when it comes to dreams, aspirations and ambitions for a better future.

Late last month, having left Europe grappling with another chapter in its unending tale of euro woes, I arrived tired and weary-eyed in a new world which was alive with hardworking people — many hardworking people — from many nations, all full of hope and dynamism.

Forget the euro crisis, the Spanish unemployment rate, the prospect of a Greek exit from the eurozone, the talk in Asia was about business deals, mergers, acquisitions and becoming rich, richer, richest.

It’s also about combining modernisation with civilisation. Zaventem Airport in Belgium like others in Europe is modern and efficient — most of the time. But you definitely do not get the impression that the staff on duty really cares about you. They would actually much rather be at home than scanning your bags or selling you sunglasses and perfume.

Arriving in Bangkok, I felt they cared. Very much. They did not want me to get lost. Large computer screens helped me find my way around the massive building. Information desks were not shut. There were automatic teller machines at every step. They did not want me to go hungry: there were restaurants and cafes at every turn.

I rubbed my eyes, combed my hair and did what other exhausted travellers were doing. I headed for the airport spa and booked myself in for an hour of ‘reflexology foot massage’ following by an exhilarating procedure where my back and shoulders were poked, prodded and stroked and felt magically realigned as a result.

And then, the miracle: a Boots pharmacy where I spent a delicious hour or so anointing myself with magical potions and perfumes.

In the airport lounge, I had to manoeuvre past Chinese businessmen keen to buy Southeast Asia’s timber, oil and gas or invest in the region’s many booming manufacturing industries.

An unintentional eavesdropper, I learned that China is investing millions of dollars in Southeast Asia’s infrastructure, a fact repeated to me frequently when I arrived in Laos, one of the region’s smallest and poorest nations.

Next to me in the airport lounge, American-South Koreans discussed the pros and cons of investing in their country of origin. Japanese businessmen screamed “mushi mushi” into their phones while only yards away a very anxious Indian entrepreneur beseeched the person on the other end of the phone to “stop talking and listen to me”.

He was not alone. Indian businessmen, tourists, families with children and grandparents were everywhere. I remembered that an Indian friend told me that affluent Indian tourists went abroad with their own cooks in tow. Certainly, they looked well-fed and were all having fun.

In fact I went in search of food. The variety of food on offer left me gasping for air: Malaysian, Singaporean, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, American — and even Belgian. Or perhaps I was just dreaming?

Yes, the shift of global economic power to Asia is palpable, strong and exciting. In Europe, it’s all about just when the eurozone — and perhaps even the European Union — will unravel. In Southeast Asia, it’s about construction: adopting new plans for economic integration, breaking down tariff barriers, connecting the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) through transport and energy links.

Asean dreams big — and although it often falters, it keeps its aims high. As they celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Asean’s 10 members can point to significant achievements: the region is home to some of the world’s most dynamic economies, recent reforms in Myanmar have added to the region’s lustre as a global trade and investment partner and governments are showing a new seriousness in trying to meet ambitious targets to give Asean a political and security identity and create an integrated region-wide economic area.

Notwithstanding the recent border flare-up between Thailand and Cambodia, Asean’s goal of achieving peace and stability across the region has been largely assured despite thousands of kilometres of disputed borders between members.

Discreet but strong Asean pressure for reform was instrumental in ensuring change in Myanmar, and Asean remains in the driver seat of an array of pan-Asian integration initiatives, including the increasingly influential East Asia Summit whose members now include the US and Russia.

Significantly, despite tensions over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea among some Asean states and China — and Beijing’s tough reaction to the renewed US security presence in the region — Asean has managed to keep relations with its giant neighbour on an even keel, skillfully using US-China competition for influence in the region to enhance its own strategic importance.

Significant challenges remain, however. Asean will have to work faster, harder and with more determination if it is to achieve the ambition of forging ‘One Vision, One Identity, One Community’. Despite the economic integration hype, Asean remains a fragmented grouping of 10 very different economies.

Protectionist reflexes remain strong, trammelling plans to build a frontier-free economic community by 2015 which would include a regional free market in goods and services, harmonised rules for investment, mobility for skilled workers and liberalisation of capital movements.

Having lived so many years in Europe, there is much here that I love and find reassuring. But in order to avert depression and euro-pessimism, every few months, I need a boost of Asian energy and dynamism.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.