“Union is strength”
“The European Union is a zone of raging bureaucracy which stears every hectolitre of wine, and
every tone of beef”
-Janusz Korwin Mikke
To address the fundamental question of whether Asia should coalesce to form an Asian Union
along the lines of the European Union, it is important to understand what the status quo is, with
respect to Asia, and how a Union, in the broadest and simplest sense of the world, could help the
Asia, on the economic front, is currently seeing what can best be described as a “race to the
bottom”. Countries are competing, aggressively, to present the cheapest labour in the continent to
the multinational corporations hailing from their western counterparts. A Union could turn this
competition into a healthy cooperation. Let us take the example of China, a country whose
catapult to manufacturing repute happened on the back of its cheap labour. As this gigantic
economy is growing and developing, labour is bound to become less cheap, if not expensive. If
Thailand and Vietnam decide to exploit this phenomenon and ease the business and regulatory
conditions prevailing in their markets and governments, they could very well do so and shift
manufacturers’ focus to their countries. China stands to lose, perhaps heavily, from such a shift,
slackening the bond between these economies. A Union, in this case, would collectively set the
terms of investment to the western companies.
Asia is home to intense socio-political feud, with live hostilities between India and Pakistan,
South and North Korea, China and Japan and China and India, to name a few. While it is
tempting to call off an Asian Union project on the basis that there seems to be no broad desire for
regional integration given these feuds, those subscribing to that notion have to be reminded of
conflicts between the members of the present day European Union during the two World Wars.
If those countries could shed hostilities and even give up a part of their national sovereignty, so
can Asian nations, or at least some believe. The European Model, showed the rest of the world
that a neighbouring nation’s success and yours is inextricably, linked. A Union could direct the
show of force used to resolve conflicts, that unfortunately, parts of Asia have come to be known
for, towards constructive dialogue and diplomacy.
Besides solving its issues through uniting its member nations, the Union could go a long way in
effectively establishing itself as a single market. The region has the world’s most significant sea
lanes, allowing for most of the world’s seaborne energy shipments to pass through it. The
benefits of leveraging these lanes could manifest in the form of new transit routes to Central
Asia, China and North East India, in particular, among other regions.
To even imagine what such a Union would look like is a herculean task in itself, which is why
there is a need to compare to existing models. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is
probably the closest, and/or most successful project in that direction so far in this region, and it
helps to dive deep into this body and how it has been functioning. The Gulf Cooperation
Council, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Shanghai Cooperation
Association, while being good examples of the same, far from met the intended objectives with
which they were founded. The primary objective of ASEAN is to encourage economic growth
and investment. The region is the world’s 7th largest single market, with a combined economic
output of over $2.3 trillion. In the past, the region boosted exports to Japan and USA creating
“One Standard, One Market” policies for its cosmetics market and overhauled its aviation
market, by formulating the ‘Open Skies’ project, making the region a single aviation market.
There has been extensive focus on combating terrorism, drug trade and human trafficking within
the region as well.
Ignore the corruption that has stifled progress in the ASEAN story, and it seems like a rather
merry Union, even thought of as the third pillar of growth in Asia, after India and China.
While these successes are encouraging, the reality of the continent as a whole, in the context of
bringing it under the fold of a Union, is best summarized with one word: disparity.
When we talk about free flow of goods, services and factors of production through removal or
reduction of tariff and nontariff barriers, one of the primary hallmarks of a Union, we are
compelled to compare the economic statuses of the countries in question. Singapore, with a per
capita GDP of $52,960 will now join the club with Myanmar, with a per capita GDP of $1275.
Singapore ranks number 1 in the Global Ease of Doing Business Index, while Indonesia, Laos
and Myanmar, three Asian nations, rank 114, 148 and 177 respectively in the same index. In a
region so diverse in terms of economic systems, Islamist, Socialist and Communist, being a few
contrasting ones, a broad consensus with regards to economic policy is near to, if not completely,
for the sake of the scorn towards the word, impossible.
We also have a unique problem that Europe never had, and is unlikely to have: China.
The country accounts for 60% of South and Southeast Asian population. Its hostility towards
Japan, for example, has severely affected automobile and hospitality industries. When a country
is this powerful, it raises insecurities among smaller, weaker nations, of China’s imperialist
desires. China, on the other hand, is unlikely to relax the muscle it has been exerting to fend off
the United States’ close association with Japan, Philippines and Taiwan.
The doubts over the desire for regional integration crop up from time to time as we witness
Asian countries exhibiting increasing sense of nationalism after having broken off shackles of
colonial powers and establishing free modern economies. Ironically, the European Union was
founded, among other reasons, to fight rising ultra nationalism and the elements causing it in the
region. This also comes amidst political stability issues in Philippines and instances of religious
sectarianism in Indonesia and Myanmar.
India’s national interests too, probably lie against such a Union. The Act East Policy aside, India
might lose its opportunity to become Asia’s stronger side on the global map to the dragon up
north, who will look to, by all means and methods, dominate the Asian Union.
To summarize the writer’s opinions and thoughts on the possibility of formation or success of the
Asian Union, I choose to invoke the wise words of John Maxwell: A Nightmare is a big dream ..
with a bad team.
Asia, all things considered, is probably a bad team.