Book Review: ASEAN in 2017, Regional Integration in an Age of Uncertainty

Studying ASEAN as a region, its policy, relations among member countries, and geopolitical situations has attracted many scholars to inscribe their ideas and analysis. ASEAN in 2017: Regional Integration in an Age of Uncertainty, an outstanding monograph recently published by ASEAN Studies Center Faculty of Social and Political Sciences Universitas Gadjah Mada is one of them.

This monograph offers numerous important points about uneven regional development, which I shall address in this part. One of the example is trade regime, which serves as the core of ASEAN economic integration. Since the beginning, I strongly believe that a trade agreement is a political alliance. Either it is bilateral or multilateral to see ASEAN trade agreement as a product of political negotiation, which represents national interest remains important. In these circumstances, we know that ASEAN+6 (Australia, New Zealand, India, Republic of Korea, Japan, and China) has on-going negotiations on RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) at hands. The RCEP already failed twice to meet its deadline, which is due to the end of this year.

Dr Jeffrey Wilson once noted on his paper then at his public lecture (21 March 2017) that RCEP is like a ‘noodle bowl problems’. Unlike TPP, RCEP has standard issues on environment, labour workers, intellectual properties, etc. However, Shane Preuss offers clear ideas about how to deal with, for example, the labour workers issue. Even if the sending labour states made a consensus with the receiving labour states, the government (with or without aid from NGOs) must promote it in the most efficient and effective mechanisms. It nevertheless would be a good starting point if each nation fully aware about what their most potential resource and start cooperating from that aspect. Once they realize what it is, then give the most attention on it.

I shall start with lessons from European Union on work labour. Would it work in ASEAN? Consider, for example, cultural different between both entities. The European society already passed a long journey from functional cooperation, which I doubt would go immediately in Southeast region. However, the author already put some attention that we could not just apply the exact policy in ASEAN and yet the EU’s experience would still beneficial for us to learn.

What I shall disagree with the arguments made in the book is that if the only things we should do is to provoke socio-cultural purpose with people-oriented and people-centred approaches. In the age of anthropocentrism, I argue that we should not pay attention with merely human-made problems, but also in a wider environmental perspective. We should lead ASEAN to put more attention on environmental issues, rather than merely focusing on ‘people-oriented’ and ‘people-centred’ ASEAN.

Paul J. Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist, is the person who popularise the ‘Anthropocene’ term. In 2000, Crutzen stated that anthropogenic activity (every human behaviour) in 21st century affects the atmosphere. It could be related to recent condition as the time when anthropogenic activity has a significant effect to the ecosystem. Probably, it started since the 18th century, right after the Industrial Revolution.

Consider, for example, haze issues in the region. Remember when the peatland in Borneo (Kalimantan) and Sumatra were burned down because the El Ninocyclic in 2015. Neighbour states such as Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia spoke up to press the government to take a quick and efficient action. However, environmental problems have its own characteristics. It needs integration and commitment from every nation in the region, since the excess will affects not only one country, but also the whole region. The effect was devastating. If you would not to inhale smoky air in the morning, you have to track where the fresh air is coming.

There is a real-time satellite imageries from Global Forest Watch about the burning events, actually when its peak on 14 October and its downfall on 14 December 2015. That is a reason why Carbon-tax regulation is important and we need to struggle for this from now on.

Carbon dioxide gas was produced naturally in three ways. First, from volcanic mountains both on earth surface and on deep below ocean. Second, as the result of deep ocean organism metabolic process, which would float to the sea surface in summer. Third, from fossil fuel or coal burning from anthropogenic activity (economic activity).

We could not (or less) doing anything to control carbon dioxide gas from the first and second producers. Yet, we absolutely could do something to produce less carbon dioxide gas from our activity, and carbon-tax regulation could be a solution to the problem.

Carbon-tax regulation is a set of rules to control the price of carbon dioxide emission (as a fee) produced from a certain party. Private corporations and state-owned corporations, especially in industrial and transportation, every goods from export-import activities, also every Indonesia citizen needs to be taxed. Precisely, with different charge. The regulation would give most impact to the export-import trade. Goods could not be imported from a country that does not apply the regulation unless they pay a high tariff or they could apply the same regulation in their own country to pass the goods.

However, the addition fee would raise up the price of goods or service. However, the good news is, money from the tax would be shared (as a dividend) to every citizen on the same amount. Everyone would receive it in a certain period and does not depend to one’s carbon dioxide emission produced. The government, along with every state-owned enterprises does not receive any rupiah of it. Generally, the people would be helped in transition from fossil fuel and coal dependence.

The RCEP negotiations include reducing export-import tariff, which could means a good thing since it would increase corporations and factories to produce more goods, and stimulating economic growth. We should also consider the contribution of increased economic growth to environment. More goods produced (with recent technologies) means more waste produced too, if we still use fossil fuel or coal as two main energy sources.

I do not say that the government needs to ban all economic activity that includes fossil fuel or coal as the energy sources, since the effect would be economically damaging. However, we should start to consider not just our future, but our next generations too. Would they live in a world when they have to fighting with others just to drink a glass of water? An age when they have to wear a gas mask all the time because the contaminated air to be inhaled?

Implementing the regulation should be accompanied with more research on renewable energy sources, and in the same time, we could raise campaign to using less plastic and using more eco-friendly stuff in our daily life. We have to raise environmental awareness not just in Indonesia, but also in the whole region. This is the problem that we should work together to solve.

Here I am not arguing that socio-cultural purpose with people-oriented and people-centred approaches is unnecessary. Nevertheless, I shall say that it is not the only important thing to be consider of. If we pursue a premise ‘to fulfil basic rights’ in the last article by Ahmad Umar with a more philosophical thought, I wonder if we could achieve it in the near future. If one could not get what he or she needs, would it be ASEAN member-states’ duty to provide it for the people?

Viny Alfiyah is an Undergraduate Student at Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada