This year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, celebrates the 45th anniversary of signing its foundation charter, the Bangkok Declaration, “inspired by and united under One Vision, One Identity and One Caring and Sharing Community.” Diplomacy & Trade talked to five Ambassadors accredited to Budapest from the region.
Upon the request of Diplomacy and Trade, the Ambassadors of the five ASEAN nations based in Budapest (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) gathered for a discussion about the role of ASEAN and the relations between Hungary and their respective countries. (Other ASEAN country Ambassadors accredited to Hungary include the Ambassadors of Laos based in Vienna, Cambodia based in Berlin, and Myanmar in Belgrade, while Singapore has a roving ambassador who visits Budapest three times a year.)
“Substantial ASEAN effort”
The most senior of these Ambassadors in Budapest is Malaysia’s Kamilan Maksom. He stressed that “since ASEAN was formed 45 years ago by the five founding members (Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand) and joined later by Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, Southeast Asia has become a region of tranquility and has recorded unparalleled economic progress and development. Malaysia, for instance, has achieved rapid transformation from an agro-based economy to an export-driven one spurred by high technology, a knowledge-based services sector and capital-intensive industries. Malaysia, currently ranked the 19th largest trading nation, aspires to become a fully developed, high income nation by the year 2020; an ambitious but realistic goal that Malaysia is on the track of achieving.”
He added that Malaysia advocates a ‘prosper thy neighbor’ policy working in concert with its trading partner countries to attain economic advancement that would be mutually beneficial. “As the world becomes more globalized, my mission is to establish strategic economic and trade partnerships with countries under my jurisdiction including Hungary, Slovenia and Macedonia as well as the emerging economies in the Central and Southeast European region. With Slovenia, for instance, Malaysia’s Port Klang, which is the world’s 11th busiest port, has had a strategic sister agreement with the port of Koper since 2006. Cooperation between the two ports has blossomed and been instrumental in turning the Port of Koper into an important gateway for export from ASEAN and the Fareast to Southeast Europe, and vice versa. I am optimistic that closer transportation cooperation between ASEAN and the Central European countries will further strengthened economic and trade relations between the two dynamic regions,” he added.
The Thai Ambassador, Krit Kraichitti called these discussions the “most substantial ASEAN effort” in Budapest and added that he would like to see more open dialogue in the future. As regards the ASEAN cooperation, he stressed that “after four decades of loose association, the member states became legally bound by the ASEAN Charter in 2008. The slogan among the ASEAN countries is ‘competition and cooperation’. We are working towards integration and the aim is that by 2015 we will become an economic and political community. I believe that the ASEAN countries should open up towards East Central Europe and Budapest could be a center in that effort.”
Indonesia’s Ambassador, Maruli Tua Sagala called attention to the ASEAN economic progress, that, among others, the 10 ASEAN countries have already succeeded in bringing 99% of the trade tariffs among ASEAN countries to the level of zero. This achievement will be more valuable for the economic growth of the region when ASEAN transforms into the ASEAN Community by 2015, in which ASEAN will become one production base and one market along with the free movement of people and commodities. The combined GDP of the ASEAN countries is around USD two trillion and it has enlarged its economic cooperation in the form of a free trade area with India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand – this translates into a lot of opportunities! “For this reason, Hungary should consider the ASEAN region as an important and promising business partner in Asia. Our task as ASEAN Ambassadors is to raise awareness of the ASEAN region in Hungary and likewise for Hungary in the ASEAN countries,” he added.
As the Thai Ambassador pointed out, the priority of ASEAN in East Central Europe is connectivity, which was also a topic of the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brunei at the end of April. “Connectivity requires strong transport and sea links, like that of the port of Koper or that of another port on the Adriatic Sea, Rijeka in Croatia. Connectivity also includes reasonable and competitive airfares between Southeast Asia and East Central Europe, provided by any airline,” he said. He believes ASEAN nations should organize a comprehensive ASEAN Trade Fair in Budapest’s Asia Center later this year, combining trade, investment and tourism with other promotional activities like cultural and gastronomy programs and people-to-people contacts.
The Vietnamese Ambassador, Ngo Duy Ngo, stressed that Hungarian businesses should keep in mind that the ASEAN countries make up a region of 500 million people with huge export market potential. Meat, wine, medicine and other Hungarian products would be welcome in the ASEAN market, he believes – an opportunity that has remained unexploited, so far. Ambassador Ngo is of the opinion that Hungarian businesses are not dynamic enough; they claim Southeast Asia is far away and thus, transport is expensive. “However, for the Americans, it is just as far! It would be a great advantage for Hungarian exports as the Vietnamese people are well aware of how important food safety in Hungary is! There could even be place for a Hungarian supermarket chain in Vietnam, with not much competition in that field. He personally asked Hungarian businessmen why they don’t go to Vietnam, where the business environment is favorable, from where they could move on to Laos and Cambodia, the opportunity is there, he added.
Tying into that idea, the Thai ambassador suggested that ASEAN countries should organize a joint tour for Hungarian business people to Southeast Asia, which – according to the Vietnamese ambassador, who himself comes from an education background – could also include people who would promote Hungarian education opportunities. He mentioned the example of a hundred Vietnamese students studying medicine in Debrecen, eastern Hungary, where courses in English are at least 3-4 times less expensive than in the United States but the level of education is good and the local university provides certificates that are accepted in the EU.
In line with her colleagues, the Filipino Ambassador, Eleanor Lumbes Jaucian also stressed that “Hungary needs to open up, it has so much potential, so many assets in terms of technology and culture, but it needs to be more outward-looking.” She would like to increase economic interaction because, at the moment, “there is not really that much awareness of the Philippines in Hungary. However, I’m surprised how many Filipinos, who come to Vienna, also come to Hungary. I would like to see that the other way around, as well: Hungarians who visit Southeast Asia, should go to the Philippines, too.”
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