Last week business leaders from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines announced the formation of an ASEAN Business Club (ABC). The initial members include the bosses of CIMB Bank, Air Asia, Bangkok Bank, Ayala and other business luminaries. According to the CIMB press release, the ABC is a “fully private sector driven initiative for ASEAN’s major home grown corporations to come together and fully engage in ASEAN’s community building efforts.”
At first glance, the ABC would appear to duplicate an existing ASEAN initiative called the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ABAC). ABAC was established by ASEAN leaders to provide feedback from the business community on ASEAN matters. Each ASEAN member selects three business leaders to represent the country at ABAC.
Although both ABAC and the ABC will provide feedback from the business community, it looks like they will have different, perhaps complimentary roles. ABAC functions as an umbrella business group for ASEAN, with its main event hosting the annual ABAC business meeting held on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit. The leadership of ABAC shifts every year, like that of ASEAN itself. All of these factors result in ABAC acting more as a business networking organization, with intra-business ties just as important as government-industry relations.
From reading the press release and news reports, it appears that the ABC will be something different. Being a purely private sector initiative, funded by local ASEAN companies, I think the ABC will have more of an advocacy role. ABC will have continuing institutional support from the CIMB ASEAN Research Institute, meaning that the ABC should be able to provide input on ASEAN matters on a persistent and consistent basis. The ABC thus goes beyond the role of ABAC (caused by the structural limitations described above) and is a positive step reflecting a greater maturity in the ASEAN business community with regard to government relations.
The ABC and ABAC can thus provide dual and mutually supportive roles for the ASEAN business community in dealing with AEC issues. For example, the U.S. has both the US-ASEAN Business Council (USABC) to advocate American business interests in ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Council of American Chambers of Commerce (APCAC) to coordinate business activities in ASEAN and elsewhere in Asia. There is no reason why the ABC and ABAC cannot do the same. For years both the USABC and APCAC have wanted to deal with an ASEAN counterpart. It looks like that is going to happen.