OPINION: How to boost Africa and South East Asia cooperation

By Joel Okwemba

Considered one of humanity’s great early achievements is the crossing of early man from Asia to Australia. Archeological, genetic and paleontological evidence contends that modern humans spread into South-East Asia from Africa about 60,000 years ago- owing to the cooling of the Earth’s climate in the Ice Age.

Their heritage today is left behind with the presence of Indigenous peoples not limited to the Aetas of the Philippines and the Semang people of Malaysia. The contacts between the peoples in South East Asia and Africa were later made possible through colonization, a history shared by both regions, by the Portuguese, British, Dutch and later American involvement.

Following the independence of states in these regions, relations took the form of multi-lateral relations, as part of the Non-Aligned Movement during the cold war led by the then Indonesia’s President Sukarno and India’s Prime Minister Nehru.

The first Asia-Africa Summit- commonly referred to as the Bandung Conference of 1955, was set to be a pretext to long term engagements between the two continents, attended by 6 African states out of a total of 30 states notably Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia and Sudan.

The Second Summit would be in April 2005- Jakarta, to mark the 50th Anniversary, was attended by 54 Asian and 52 African countries and lastly the 60th Anniversary held in April 2015- Jakarta, where 109 Asian and African countries participated.

Unlike this summit, the Forum for East Asia – Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC) which will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year, has 36 members and managed to implement 411 national and regional projects, the ASEAN-Africa relationship lacks any formal institutional standing- noting that South Africa made a failed attempt to include the New Asian-Africa Strategic Partnership (NAASP) into the African Union’s NEPAD.

At the Bi-lateral levels, South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria are the largest trading partners of ASEAN in Africa, while Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have made developments on this front. The following text examines the opportunities and challenges across various focus issues:

Diplomatic Cooperation

  • ASEAN- AU Diplomatic Relations

There are no formal diplomatic relations between the two regional bodies, ASEAN has no representative to the AU and vice versa. However, at the bi-lateral level there are Ambassadors from African Countries sent to ASEAN Organization, as of November 15, 2018. African countries (10) with the representatives are Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan (Vacant), Tunisia (Vacant) and Zimbabwe (Vacant).

  • ASEAN-AU and the UN Reforms

African and Asian continents have a large stake in maintaining international peace and security, through the “L 69 Group”, where Arab, African and Asian countries convene to push for a united consensus on the Question of Equitable Representation on and Increase in Membership of the Security Council. The progress on this issue ought to commence text-based negotiations instead of convening unproductive circular discussions between and among varying groups with separate opinions.

  • ASEAN-AU & The OBOR Initiative

The One Belt One Road Initiative’s ambition is to connect 70 countries across Asia, Africa and Europe. African coastal countries along the Indian Ocean as well as South East Asian Countries are part of the project. The trading routes also provide opportunity not just for China, but for countries along the sea lines to participate in trade and commerce.

This also combines with the Chinese Foreign Direct Investments into these regions to support infrastructural development. As of 2018, the total volume of trade between China and the ASEAN countries hit a record high of $587.87 billion, up 14.1 percent year-on-year. It is without a doubt that AU and African countries could exchange best practices on engagement with China.

  • ASEAN-AU and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals Agenda

The 2030 Agenda is coordinated between the two regions by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) through the South-South Cooperation platform. UNDP initiatives on South-South Cooperation include: Solutions Exchange platform SSMart for sustainable development; Global coalition of think tanks networks for South-South Cooperation and the Saemaul Initiative towards inclusive and sustainable communities. Furthermore, the UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) between the Government of Kenya and the United Nations for the period 2018-2022 underscores commitments in Sustainable and inclusive growth, environment and climate change as well as Equitable social and human capital development. The two regions could find ways through UNDP Coordination to contribute to the global goals while simultaneously advancing their national/regional development objectives.

Security Cooperation

  • War Against Terrorism

According to the 2018 Global Terrorism Index, the African country ranking with a Very High terrorist threat is Nigeria followed by Somalia, 3rd and 6th respectively while among ASEAN countries Philippines and Thailand follow as countries at a High Risk, 10th and 17th respectively. Similar issues across board complicate the counter-terrorism efforts such as porous-borders which allow for the proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW), corruption by law-enforcement agencies which commercializes the War on Terror making it a hopeless circular motion, lack of sound de-radicalization measures for the youth that integrate radicals and returnees into economic and social life of the rest of the society as well as the lack of a proper counter narrative against a “redemption narrative” that mobilizes and radicalizes the youth.

Political Cooperation

  • Governance, Identity Politics and Development

In many references made by African Politicians, reference to the Asian Tigers’ development record is glorified and envied. The leadership style that propelled South East Asian nations is termed “benevolence dictatorship” and is perceived to be an ideal model to leap frog Africa’s development trajectory to solve her problems of poverty and under-development.

Similarly, some countries from South East Asia made benchmarking trips to study governance systems from some of the African countries. The Human Development Index (HDI) out of 198 countries and territories, ranks Singapore 9th in the world with an HDI Value of 0.932 followed by Brunei Darussalam at 39th with an HDI Value of 0.853 then Malaysia at 57th with an HDI Value of 0.802.

Among African countries, Algeria ranks first at 85th place with an HDI Value of 0.754, then Tunisia at 95th with an HDI Value of 0.735, and Botswana at position 101 with an HDI Value of 0.717. It would be important to build governance structures and systems that are responsive to the development of the Human Capital in both regions, noting that the two regions have a substantive population share in the world.

  • War on Political Corruption

Political corruption was the theme for the African Union under the Chairmanship of President Kagame of Rwanda and is also a key issue undermining the future of the peoples of South East Asia. The Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International assessing public sector corruption in 180 countries puts Singapore as the 3rd followed by Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia at 31st and 61st as least corrupt countries from the ASEAN region respectively.

From the African Union, Seychelles ranks 28th, followed by Botswana and Rwanda at 34th and 48th least corrupt countries respectively. Opportunities to share best practices on government borrowing, tracking money laundering and prosecution of high-level officials.

Economic Cooperation

  • CAFTA-SAFTA: Opportunities for Economic Integration

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) is set to be a panacea to the low intra-African trade currently at 14-18%. Signed by about 22 Members of the African Union, concerns around development integration to precede economic integration arise. Movement of people, non-tariff barriers and infrastructure remain challenges if addressed could spur Africa’s productivity.

The continent established 8 regional economic communities within which 15 Regional Integration Arrangements were established, the Abuja Treaty came in to create the African Economic Community with a 34-year mandate until the establishment of the African Common Market in the 6th Implementation Stage.

The ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA) seems to have dealt with the issue of “the country origin of a good” concisely expanding the framework to have regional value content criterion set at 40% and consideration of processing or working of the goods have taken place, allowing for a broader domestic growth. Both regions are also yet to fully engage the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to maximize the benefits, and also in exploring ways the two regions could enhance trade as blocs.

  • Human Capital and Labor Relations: Movement of People, Goods and Services

The Gulf Countries owing to their remarkable economic development have attracted both skilled and semi-skilled workers primarily from Asia and Africa, who comprise of 88% of the population in the United Arab Emirates for instance.

The Kalafa sponsorship system has been under heavy scrutiny from both Asian and African countries, to ensure mobility for migrant workers in the labor market. Sharing of best practice on Labor Protection and Diaspora Diplomacy would be an interest area for the two regions.

  • Digital Connectivity Cooperation for the 4th Industrial Revolution

The world has an internet penetration rate of 56.3% out of a population of about 7.7 Billion, half of whom are found in the Asian Continent- where the penetration rate is at 51.7% out of a population of about 4.2 Billion. The ASEAN Countries leading this are Brunei Darussalam at 93.5%, Singapore at 82.5% followed by Thailand at 82.2%. There are 125,000 new users coming onto the internet every day from the region.

In Africa, the penetration rate is 35.9% against a population of about 1.3 Billion. The countries leading this are Kenya with a rate of 83% followed by Liberia and Seychelles at 80.9% and 70.1% respectively. Both regions have the capability to leap frog though investments in the digital economy, there are enterprising young technologists and more people living in rural settings- a factor that could bring together enterprises and investments to explore opportunities in connectivity, digital markets and trading platforms and research.

The writer is the Managing Director, Centre for International and Security Affairs (CISA)