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Envisioning an Asia-Pacific Economic Union in the Next Decade and its Benefits for Sri Lanka

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By Srimal Fernando and Justin Chua

As 2020 comes to a close, it is worth discussing the great potential in the next decade for intra-regional trade within the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) have provided the foundation for greater economic integration and interconnectivity between Asian economies. Integration into the world economy has proven a powerful means for countries to develop and prosper. Thus, the development of an Asia-Pacific Economic Union can be envisioned for the next decade.

 

Key Driver of Economic Integration

For the short to medium term future, international trade will be largely driven by a few regional economic giants. These nations will provide greater economic activity for other countries, located in Asia, which are part of the global supply chain. Specifically, greater linkage of major players in the region will see a beneficial increase in trade of smaller nations. Sri Lanka, as a relatively smaller economy in this region, will gain immensely through a greater economic union within Asia and can develop into a regional centre for trade and investment. Its strategic location within the Asia-Pacific region provides great access to over 40 percent of global trade and over 2.5 billion consumers.

 

Sri Lanka’s gains from Regional Integration

With US elections symbolising a greater social and political amalgamation of national powers, greater trade through global and regional policy reforms are becoming more prevalent. The recent signing of RCEP gives greater access to the largest economies in Asia. Along with India’s strong presence with ASEAN, greater integration of Asian nations will benefit small nations like Sri Lanka, which is well-placed on global shipping lines linking the world. In addition, India’s Act East Asian foreign policy along with its Neighbourhood First policy will strengthen Sri Lanka’s trade policy with ASEAN and RCEP member nations. Similarly, members of ASEAN will see Sri Lanka as a launching pad into South Asia and make use of increasing SAARC cooperation.

 

RCEP, ASEAN and SAARC: the makings of an Asia-Pacific Economic Union

The greater connectivity through trade and investment, as a result of these multilateral agreements, may pave the way for a grouping of Asian countries similar to that of the European Union. In this respect, greater interdependence between the larger and smaller nations within and outside these regional blocs will provide the impetus for policy reforms. However, mutual gains are required for there to be a sustainable and enduring merger. It is important to ensure that increasing trade among all member nations does not come at the expense of national sovereignty.

 

An Asia-Pacific Visa-Free Zone

One of the drivers for increased trade and interconnectivity in the Asia-Pacific economic zone will be the increased numbers of people moving among the regional blocs. Although there are currently visa-free agreements within ASEAN and SAARC, future challenges will come about from providing more unrestricted movement within the broader Asia-Pacific zone. Moreover, future effective regional migration policy needs to avoid the amplification of stark differences in purchasing power as well as real wages between countries at various development stages. In a nutshell, movement of labour ought to be based on medium to high skill labour rather than low skilled labour to mitigate a large number of issues.

Furthermore, economic integration that incorporates visa-free work and travel rights requires greater homogenisation of national policies to create synergies between member nations of a future Asia-Pacific Economic Union. Further, this may well allow for relatively open border-protection policies whilst safeguarding national sovereignty. Thus, a visa-free policy in Asia without adequate planning and policy reforms will fail to address growing concerns. Therefore, policymakers are required to consider developing equitable outcomes both at home and abroad.

 

Union of Free Trade and Protectionism

The propagation of Free Trade Agreements in the 21st century has necessitated a fundamental reconciliation between economic liberalisation and protectionism, in order to develop a sustainable framework for an Asia-Pacific regional order.

In the trade realm, the combined effort by the three regional blocs ASEAN, SAARC and RCEP has imposed the removal in full or in part of tariffs and other trade barriers. Whilst this has provided countries with opportunities to become logistic hubs, individual nations within an envisaged Asia-Pacific Economic Union have to work out suitable policies to protect valuable import and export interests. But the challenge is bringing the different sub-regions under one regional umbrella agreement with vastly different interests. In this respect, safeguarding national interests in certain industries requires policy makers to undertake problem-solving with a strong focus on collaboration. Developing nations, such as Sri Lanka, have a lot to gain from increased trade and connectivity throughout the region. Greater speed of development and access to capital will elevate the livelihood and economic opportunities available to its populace.

In the monetary realm, the veneration of free trade and privatisation of trade and investment will be unjustifiable if it fails to benefit participating countries. In this respect, monetary and fiscal policy with a focus on Asia-Pacific intra-regional support is more likely to provide genuine long-term gains and greater diversity in terms for borrowing nations. For Sri Lanka, greater monetary support from regional partners will not displace post-WWII foundational monetary frameworks, but significantly reinforce the global rules-based order.

In practical terms, greater regional integration in the form of an Asia-Pacific Economic Union will not be beneficial if it weakens capabilities of member nations to control their monetary supply. Nevertheless, greater regional cooperation may well serve to protect the value of national currencies from extra-regional forces. Therefore, this conflict between regional and global monetary powers may well lead to the Asia-Pacific becoming another European Union, albeit in a more loosely defined form.

 

Conclusion

A more collective and integrated world order is coming into being. This will benefit small nations like Sri Lanka in the next decade. Greater economic integration and interconnectivity has seen greater free trade within the whole region, albeit without a formalization of a Free Trade Agreement for the whole of Asia. Still, recent moves by the regional blocs has made an Asia-Pacific Economic Union an achievable goal.

Dr. Srimal Fernando is a recipient of the prestigious O.P Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and the SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Advisor/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has also received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of upcoming book Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union.

Mr. Justin Chua is an Australian Lawyer with a particular focus on commercial and immigration law. He has studied commerce and law at universities such as RMIT University, University of Melbourne and University of Hong Kong, and has lived and worked in a number of countries in Asia. As a foreign policy analyst who is based in Melbourne, Australia, he has a keen interest in international relations in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Features

Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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