Clarisse Ann Bartolome
One cannot open an Indonesian newspaper nowadays without a story of US-Indonesia cooperation catching one’s eye. At the same time, the United States and the Philippines are well-known strategic partners, and endless column inches are dedicated to every twist and turn of their relationship.
But who knows of the already strong links between the Philippines and Indonesia? How many column inches have been dedicated to that relationship? Take it from me, one would not need a footlong ruler to measure them. And yet there is much that is positive to say about their ties.
Most people know the Philippines and Indonesia are both members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and indeed much of the comfort zone within which this collaboration manifests itself comes about from their shared interests as members.
But how many people know that the Philippines and Indonesia have enjoyed 62 years of fruitful economic and diplomatic relations? That in areas spanning trade, joint investment, education — and more recently defense, security, and counterterrorism — they have developed a staggering range and depth of bilateral cooperation?
In the most recent past, much of the news linking the two has focused on problems they share, such as fighting terrorism. Indonesia and the Philippines are working hand-in-hand to explore ways of cooperation to combat terrorism and other forms of transnational crimes threatening their borders and more broadly within Southeast Asia.
Indonesia’s president has expressed his country’s readiness to assist the Philippine government in peace talks with Islamic separatist groups active in its borders. And the Philippines helped Indonesia in its own negotiations with rebels, serving as a monitor during the Aceh Peace Process in 2005.
Delimitation of maritime boundaries is on the agenda, with the goal of improving coordination in protecting the marine environment and addressing other regional concerns. Indonesia is also supporting the Philippine proposal to draft a Code of Conduct regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Both nations’ presidents have made their intentions toward each other clear. When Philippine president Benigno Aquino Jr. visited Indonesia in March 2011, leaders from both countries agreed to agreed sign a memorandum of understanding to boost cooperation in security, defense, boundary delimitation, protection of migrant workers, education and sports, to name but a few.
In fully supporting the Brunei-Indonesia-Philippines-Malaysia East Asean Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA), both countries have consented to enhance cooperation even further in food, security, energy and tourism sectors.
This latter sector came up again even more recently during the Asean Tourism Forum 2012 in Manado, North Sulawesi, when the governments of Indonesia and the Philippines initiated their very first bilateral tourism cooperation. This initiative will improve connectivity between the two countries by operating cruise ships and the renewal of direct flights between Davao in the Philippines to Manado.
In the field of education, both countries just recently signed a memorandum of understanding to provide an avenue for mutual cooperation in education, technical vocational and training.
Youth cooperation will also be enhanced through sports-related events. This initiative will encourage more interaction among the peoples of Asean and is also expected to contribute to broader Asean integration and community building.
The two countries are also actively supporting the Master Plan of Asean Connectivity, which will enhance greater mobility within the region. The Philippines in particular is eager to develop the Asean Roll-On/Roll-Off (RORO) Network and Short Sea Shipping.
Bilateral trade has trended positively in recent years. According to Indonesia’s Trade Ministry, that figure has gone from $1.12 billion in 2003 to $2.9 billion in 2009 and $3.89 billion in 2010.
Considering that Indonesia and the Philippines are the two largest labor exporting countries in the region and are thus competitors, it is perhaps surprising that they are willing to share their respective experiences in order to enhance training facilities for their migrant workers so that they will be better equipped for competition abroad. But both countries recognize that cooperation is important for the movement of skilled workers not only within the Asean region but also further afield and that such collaboration can create a comparative advantage for both countries.
With the picture so bright, then, why is it that we hear so little about their expanding relationship? The Philippines is on course for another year of relatively high economic growth, with the government forecasting 5 percent to 6 percent.
Likewise, Indonesia’s economic master plan for accelerated development, known as MP3EI, demonstrates the country’s ambition. Covering the period up to 2025, the MP3EI intends to increase economic growth to as high as 7.5 percent per year. Perhaps the reason we hear so little about the positives is that they are often overshadowed by the negatives, which are considered more newsworthy. Unemployment is still definitely high, corruption is still deeply embedded, and the legal uncertainty for new business opportunities is yet to be resolved.
But despite all this we should be hearing more about the strengths of connecting to one’s immediate neighbors. The Asean Economic Community 2015 envisions a single market and distribution base, a highly competitive economic region with equitable economic development, and a region that will be integrated fully into the global economy. Leaders are aware that a common commitment by all member states is needed to make the AEC a success. The year 2015 is just three years away. Building strong ties with all of one’s neighbors and shouting out successes in this regard is a critical step toward success.
It is clear that investors are finding opportunities in the region at a time when bigger economies such as the European Union and the United States are struggling.
But is Asean’s commitment to transparent governance and anticorruption of strong and effective enough to steer a clear path toward realizing the Asean Economic Community vision of increased investment and stronger diplomatic ties?
As strong proponents of Asean integration, it is necessary for both countries to make their bilateral relations more well-known, effective, and proactive in an environment that attracts investment.
Yes, the countries are linked by so many agreements but how they will benefit Filipino and Indonesians citizens is yet to be trumpeted.
With all the links that exist between the people’s of the two countries, and the history of cooperation they share, should their shared push to build even stronger ties come as any surprise?
Clarisse Ann Bartolome is a research officer at Strategic Asia Indonesia, a consultancy promoting cooperation among Asian countries. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Clarisse Ann Bartolome