OPINION: The costs of competition

Manolo Quezon — The Explainer

Posted at Nov 13 2017 01:18 PM

There's no such thing as a free summit. The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in 2015 involving 21 economies cost P10 billion, including P2.6 billion for the Office of the President, with P118.2 million for representation and entertainment. 

The ongoing ASEAN Summit, involving 10 ASEAN countries plus 10 dialogue partners, has an allocated budget of P17 billion, down from the P19 billion originally asked for, with a projected P15.5 billion actually having been spent, including P11.5 billion for the Office of the President with P7.5 billion for representation and entertainment. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility has pointed out that Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno complained about the APEC Budget in 2015. But that was then.

This is now: ASEAN 2017 isn't just what's going on in Metro Manila, it comprises 137 meetings, with 2 summits, the ASEAN-leaders only earlier this year last April, and the ASEAN leaders plus dialogue partners ongoing now, 17 ministerial meetings, 42 senior officials' meetings, and 76 technical working group meetings. 

That's a lot, though it begs the question of whether the amount being spent is worth it—that was Congress' job to look into back when it approved the budget last year.

ASEAN is moving in bold directions but aside from economists and radical critics, most seem unaware of the implications of these moves. 

DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS

Take what is perhaps the most significant of ASEAN aspirations as far as most people are concerned: the dream of ASEAN economic integration, which aims at a kind of European Union (EU)-style open borders system among ASEAN member-states. 

Like in the EU, the dream is for people from ASEAN to be able to travel, live, and work freely in member-countries, and for goods and services to flow freely with minimal taxes and fees between member-states. It was supposed to happen, but as things stand after economic ministers met last July, it seems more likely to become a reality in 2025.

The devil, as they say, is in the details. Five-hundred-six measures to make integration a reality were envisioned and most approved, except for 105—the hardest ones. 

It's easy to cheer economic integration. It's not easy to implement it with local opinion breathing down your neck. 

For example, tariffs or fees on imports have been reduced to zero or near zero for 96 percent of previous tariff lines. But by next year, the number will only inch up to 98.67 percent. It's the remaining 4 percent that's proving tough to iron out—for example, for Filipino farmers, could you really commit, as a government, to duty-free rice importation? 

While ASEAN can brag that more than 70 percent of intra-ASEAN trade is now at the Most-Favored Nation rate of zero percent, it's the thirty percent that will require tough bargains. And what you drop in tariffs, you can raise in others. So, what are called non-tariff measures have actually increased from 1,634 to 5,975 from the year 2000 to 2015. 

ASEAN countries are also proving not as enthusiastic about allowing the free flow of services; and in terms of ASEAN countries recognizing the professional qualifications of member-countries, agreement has only been reached for 8 professions amounting to only 1.5 percent of the ASEAN workforce. No country, it seems, is willing to embrace the free flow of unskilled labor, for example.

So, that's the nosebleed-inducing reality of ASEAN and its many meetings. Yet we've gotten glimpses of how summitry works in the big leagues. 

Even as reporters and photographers who somehow were allowed to witnesses the start of our President's bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart in Vietnam, they overheard the President mentioning to Xi Jinping something about smoothening out misunderstandings. 

Donald Trump, for his part, announced he was willing to arbitrate between ASEAN and China on the West Philippine Sea and other issues. These are things that sometimes only happen when heads of state or government meet and talk.

Which is why, aside from the formal arena of meetings, leaders take time to socialize and get to size each other up. This is the reason some observers regret our President's skipping ASEAN dinners. 

THE CASE OF INDIA 

ASEAN matters. Which means we have home-court advantage as host this year. Consider those making the effort to come here. 

Much as we've been interested in China and America, take, for example, the case of India, a country we should be far more interested in for a couple of reasons. In a neighborhood of basically far-from-democratic countries, including regional superpowers like Russia and China, the other emerging regional power, India, is a fellow democracy. It has aligned itself with Australia, Japan, and America over concerns of China becoming too strong. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, comes to Manila keenly aware that ASEAN has invested 70 billion dollars in his country, 17 percent of all Foreign Direct Investments, while India's invested 40 billion dollars in the same period. 10.2 percent of all India's trade is with ASEAN. 

Among the interesting things he's doing in Manila is visiting the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños—because IRRI is setting up its first research center outside the Philippines—its South Asia Regional Centre at Varanasi, India, approved by Modi's cabinet last July.

You can be sure the Indians among others are sizing us up. The eyes and ears of many nations are watching and what they see is people saying online foreign leaders should go away because it causes traffic. What do we gain from ASEAN anyway? 

To be sure, it's government's job to make the often difficult— because abstract due to its being macro, and not micro—case for ASEAN. But it also requires a little common sense. There's widespread opinion that it ought to have been held in Clark. But the simple answer to that is where can you find the hotel rooms needed for 20 national delegations plus-plus? 

It's discouraging to note that the foot we've put forward is not only uninformed, but self-defeating. In a dog-eat-dog world, the pack will have little time or sympathy for the one that whines instead of hunting for opportunities.
 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.