The ‘Asian Century’ and ASEAN integration: contradictions and challenges (now with video)

Video from Green Left TV.

[The following talk was presented by Sonny Melencio, chairperson of Partido Lakas ng Masa-Philippines (Party of the Labouring Masses), during the Socialist Alliance 10th national conference in Sydney, Australia on June 7, 2014.]

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- When I was travelling from Manila, coming here to Australia, I bought a copy of a pocketbook that I could read in the plane. It was Dan Brown’s novel entitled Inferno. Actually, when the hardbound copy of this book first hit the bookshops, the Philippines went crazy about a small part of the novel which referred to Manila as the “gate of hell”.

After reading the book, it occurred to me that what the novel said about Manila was true. It was the most densely populated city on Earth, with huge traffic jams, suffocating pollution, houses made of corrugated metal and cardboards, communities reeking of stench, and horrifying sex trade and trafficking of women, girls and children.

I was reminded of Dan Brown’s novel today because, despite the inferno that is Manila now, our government is talking about a paradise that will be built in the Philippines during this "Asian Century".

The 'Asian Century"

Let me first talk about this Asian Century.

First, from the point of view of the imperialist powers, especially the United States, Asia-Pacific is now a key economic growth area. The tentacles of US economic power has long been weakened in Europe with the formation of the European Union. In the Middle East, the US is finding difficulty in keeping its hold in an area that has been unstable for quite some time. In Latin America, a number of countries have resisted the US economic and political stranglehold and are banding together to raise the banner of socialism anew.

Second, in the region of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (or the ASEAN), the Asian Century is being marked by talks about the integration of the economies of the 10 ASEAN countries.

The integration is aimed at integrating the economies of the ASEAN countries into the global neoliberal capitalist economy. Since the ASEAN 6 (Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei) have long been under the global capitalist economy, the integration is focused at the “transitional economies” of the newer member states – the countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam which are also referred to as the CLMV countries.

The integration is not even an attempt to “regionalise” the economies of the ASEAN countries in the model of the European Union, but a schema whereby the ASEAN will be developed as a production base for the needs of the global capitalist market, especially the imperialist powers and the big industrialised nations.

Even in terms of economic benefits for the ASEAN region, whatever industrialisation that will come out of the integration will be too minimal, too limited and will mainly serve the big imperialist powers and big corporations. This will also lead to capital searching for the lowest labour cost in the region. Hence the industrialisation will be at the expense of the working classes in the region.

Third, the Asian Century is to be pursued under the US attempt to militarise and police the region under its “pivot” or “rebalancing” plan that will position 60% of US warships from anywhere in the world to patrol Asia. It also means construction of new US bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam, and the deployment of increasing number of "rotational troops" and war materials in Australia and the Philippines. This year alone, the US is deploying 1150 troops in Australia, which is expected to increase to 2500 by 2016.

So welcome to the Asian Century. According to Dante’s Inferno, there are nine gates to hell. In ASEAN, we have 10 countries, with almost each one exhibiting some sort of Dante’s Inferno. Thailand is now in hell under the rule of the military. The Philippines is now in hell under the widespread corruption of the entire government. Malaysia is now in hell not only because it is still missing the MH 370 plane but because it is also under a dynastic rule that is constraining democracy in that country. Indonesia has long been a hell for the Indonesian sweatshop workers and the Indonesian poor.

Last, in this Asian Century, let us be prepared for the worsening environmental disaster that will make our region even a more hellish one. According to the recent study of the Asian Development Bank, the region, especially China and East Asia, are already consuming today roughly a third of global energy. This is set to rise over half by 2035. With Asia being a home to two-thirds of the world’s poor, and with many of its megacities already mired in polluted air and water, where do you think this would lead us into?

We have already experienced hell in a series of mega-typhoons never seen before in the Philippines, such as the Haiyan or the Yolanda typhoon which obliterated 10,000 people in an instant in Tacloban, Leyte in November last year. You have already experienced climate horrors and bush fires without equal in last few years. I dread what is still going to happen under this Asian Century.

Suffer we must

With the ASEAN integration going full blast next year, the Philippines is expected to suffer once again in the collapse of its agriculture, garments and textile, automobile assembly and other industries. I remember not too long ago, in the 1980s and the 1990s, the left and the working class in the Philippines had not prepared much for the disastrous impact of "globalisation" that hit the country.

Even as we speak of the hell that they are going to submit us and the ASEAN countries once again in this century, I am also aware that this situation is being duplicated here in Australia. The budget cuts under Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s neoliberal government cut into the hearts and bodies of the youth, the students and the working-class people who are made to suffer like the tortured souls fed to the dogs in the seventh circle of hell.

The only recourse left is for the youth and the working classes to prepare against the disaster. But not in terms of merely "engaging" the capitalist institutions that are pushing for integration, not in terms of negotiating for safety nets with so-called tripartite bodies, just like what the NGOs are doing. But to prepare for widespread and crippling mass actions that will protest the massive closures of companies and industries.

Unity and strategy

This of course means that we have to build the broadest coalition that could take on the disasters to be brought about by the ASEAN Integration and the Asian Century. This is a coalition that will have to mobilise against the effects of the Integration and that will have to put forward an anti-neoliberal alternative to the present neoliberal and imperialist schema.

I’m glad to say that there has been some positive developments in trade-union unity in our country in the past three years. A broad trade union formation, from the traditional to left union centres, have been formed. It is called Nagkaisa (or United), and it has been campaigning for a number of union demands since then. This May Day alone, Nagkaisa held the biggest workers’ rally ever since 2000.

The impact of the ASEAN integration will be to increase the ranks of the so-called informal sectors as more factories and industries close down in the country. For this, we need a left strategy that integrates the demands and struggles of the informal sector as street vendors, tricycle drivers and the likes in their makeshift workplaces. We need a strategy that can also muster the demands of the millions of Filipino overseas workers, with their families, who are the ones keeping the economy afloat by sending billions of dollars yearly to the Philippines.

We also need a left strategy that builds the solidarity among the left groups and the working classes especially in the region. The left should counter the climate of competition nurtured by the ASEAN integration and the Asian Century by pursuing solidarity linkages and solidarity actions across the region.

For this, we are preparing for an Asian Left Conference in Manila in November 2014 to discuss the problems related with the ASEAN integration, the Asian Century and the preparations and strategies that need to be done.

Two types of integration

On the horizon, we see two types of regional integration happening in the world today. One is the integration, such as the ASEAN one, which serves the transnational corporations and the imperialist powers.

While we prepare for the hell that is the ASEAN integration in the global capitalist economy, we dream of paradise. And our idea of paradise is for each country to work for the welfare of its people, and not for a few corporations, or the multi-billionaires and the elite.

And this points to an anti-neoliberal, anti-capitalist regional integration that is happening today in Latin America, led by the socialist leaderships of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba. This is the integration like the ALBA (the Alternativa Bolivariana para Las Americas) in Latin America, which serves as a counterweight to the anti-people, pro-corporate agenda of ASEAN integration. This is the kind of Asian integration that we should fight for.

It is utopian to think that the ASEAN countries could be pressured right now to follow a similar path as ALBA. ASEAN needs to be dismantled first. Which means the bourgeois regimes in the ASEAN countries should be overthrown first so the government of the masses in the Philippines and other ASEAN countries could be established to be able to set up an ALBA type of socialist integration.

Dante traversed his own Inferno to reach Paradise. Perhaps we need to go through hell to attain liberation. Dante was guided by Virgil and his muse to see the road to paradise. We have our own muse in the socialist integration, in the socialism of the 21st century, and this will be our guide to see us through. Dare to struggle, dare to win. Long live the unity of socialists everywhere! Mabuhay tayong lahat!