With the arrival of the Asian Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, the social, political and economic landscape of Thailand and other member countries will be profoundly altered.
However, if the ambitious objectives of the AEC are to be realised, connectivity will be key. This was affirmed by leaders of the 10 Asean countries during their meeting at Cha-am Hua Hin in 2009, and subsequently developed into a master plan. While it places emphasis on the physical aspects of connections and integration - the necessary hardware of road, rail, air and shipping infrastructure - it also recognises "soft" linkages that must also occur at a social and institutional level.
Asean has enormous potential as a centre of transportation, trade, logistics, communications and tourism. As well as being an economic powerhouse in its own right, it also enjoys close proximity to India, China, Australia and New Zealand. Yet in a context of rapid globalisation and the emergence of free trade areas (FTAs) across Asia, Asean must continue to play a leading role by accelerating and merging its individual member states into a united bloc. This can be best achieved by strengthening and expanding relationships with partner countries, both within the region and outside Asean.
In terms of physical connectivity, though logistical and technological connections within Asean are already considerable, a number of far-reaching schemes are underway that will dramatically enhance accessibility within the region. One example is the Singapore-Kunming Railway, a line looping thousands of kilometres through Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar to China. Then, extending beyond Asean, there is the ongoing development of the Asian Highway Network that, once completed, will greatly improve access by road between member countries and facilitate better connections across the continent. There has also been productive cooperation in the strengthening of growing technological fields such as ICT, most notably the Asean Broadband Corridor. In these and other critical areas such as energy security, there is a clear space for Asean to play a leading role in improving the future wellbeing of the region.
Yet connectivity cannot be achieved solely through physical development. An important complement to this shared investment in infrastructure is greater institutional links. This can be achieved in part by harmonising fragmented regulation among Asean countries in areas such as trade and customs. One positive example of this is the Asean Single Window. Once it has been fully implemented at a regional level, this integrated regulatory framework will allow for a much smoother journey of goods and materials across Asean. Similarly, in finance and specialist expertise, we need to clear mechanisms to enable collaboration with international agencies and other partnerships with private and public stakeholders.
The final consideration, however, is the degree of civic connectivity within Asean - the sense of collective cooperation between citizens of member states. If the AEC is to be a truly participatory entity, then this issue of "hearts and minds" is key. The distance between countries in Asean will be substantially smaller from 2015. Consequently, we must ensure that this increased proximity serves to enhance rather than undermine relationships with other nations. Through education and well-informed media coverage, cultural harmony and mutual understanding can be achieved. We must also seek to maximise the potential for well-managed migration through the region by liberalising visa restrictions between Asean states. This will allow for the open flow of professionals across the region, paving the way for greater collaboration and innovation.
Of course, there will also be serious challenges for Asean to confront. In particular, the dismantling of national barriers could, if carelessly managed, result in a range of adverse effects like illegal entry, environmental degradation, health risks and the spread of criminal networks. For these, we must be ready with a clear response - but without obstructing our ability to connect creatively with the rest of the region.
With its established infrastructure of airports, roads and harbors, its excellent geographic location and well-developed service industry, the potential is considerable. Yet for this to be realised, Thailand must ensure it remains aligned with the changing political and economic currents in the region, leading rather than following the latest trends in technology and commerce. In particular, Thailand should strengthen its position as a major centre for logistics, tourism and city planning, as well as a magnet for foreign investment. The future prosperity and stability of the country may be determined by our willingness to engage, rather than evade, the powerful forces of change currently reconfiguring the entire region.
Professor Nipan Vichiennoi is head of the Urban Environmental Planning and Development Programme at the Faculty of Architecture and Planning, Thammasat University.
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