Discussing issues such as ‘youth, technology & growth’, the World Economic Forum ASEAN forum, attracted global leaders. At the WEF ASEAN forum held in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh from May 10-12, discussions focused on obstacles that will have to be overcome should the region see true, equitable growth. Infrastructure, governance and open dialogue were key components of the talks but with a widening wealth gap, and a burgeoning Fourth Industrial Revolution that threatens to leave even more of the region’s vulnerable population behind, ASEAN has its work cut out.
China has long been, in the words of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, ‘strategic partner’ of ASEAN. ASEAN benefits a lot from this relationship. For years, the US pivot to Asia helped shape geopolitics, investment and development in Southeast Asia. But with anticipated disengagement and mounting protectionism from President Donald Trump’s administration, a lot of discussion centered around what impact that shift may have on China’s role in the region. At a panel titled ‘Southeast Asia and the Big Picture’, speakers grappled with the question of what that shift may mean.
China’s reigning stronghold
Will there be ‘a pivot to China’, asked Jamaludin Ibrahim, head of Axiata Group in Malaysia. With the ‘US disengaging from the region does China fill the void?’ Every country in Southeast Asia welcomes Chinese investment, wants to be part of One Belt One Road, George Yeo, visiting scholar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, told the audience at the panel. There is no question of the economic potential China allows for in the region. Yeo stressed most ASEAN countries prefer to remain promiscuous and did not want China to be their exclusive partner.
ASEAN and the Fourth Industrial Revolution
Singapore is ranked 9th out of 187 countries for education, Myanmar is ranked 150th. In a region with vast wealth, development and educational disparities, many at WEF ASEAN asked what impact the Fourth Industrial Revolution of rapid digital and technological change will have. Participants agreed now is a make or break time if Southeast Asia is to prosper from the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Fourth Industrial Revolution truly will bring benefits for people in all countries. But one should not forget that technologies will also create risks for jobs, said Prime Minister Hun Sen. ASEAN must adopt appropriate measures to ensure sustainability of labour market — quality education aiming at increasing labour skills, said Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith.
A question frequently raised was whether ASEAN countries needed to replicate an EU-style policy of unification. At a panel discussing the connectivity conundrum for the region, connecting the ASEAN countries through transportation, telecommunications and critical infrastructure networks, political unification was considered a necessity. Across the region, it could facilitate trade, enable sharing of resources, and develop consistent policies for environmental protection to continue the economic, political and social development of the region. It’s right to make the case for connectivity as a way to reduce inefficiencies, Anna Marrs, CEO for the Standard Chartered Bank, told the audience.
An important first step in making this happen was for governments to come together to create consistent policy and processes, including trade policies and cross-border employment, ensuring the private sector is encouraged to invest and do business in the region. Sun Chanthol, the Cambodian minister of public works and transport, explained that for Cambodia in particular this was an important step in the process to continue the expansion of infrastructure investment and open his country to the region and the world.