PHNOM PENH – A planned economic union in Southeast Asia is likely to be delayed by a year until the end of 2015 because some countries are not ready, Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said on Wednesday.

Surin said economic ministers from the 10 ASEAN countries had asked him for the delay at a meeting in late August and he would put the idea to heads of government at a summit in November.

Foreign ministers decided in April that the ASEAN Economic Community should start on Jan. 1, 2015, he told a meeting of energy ministers in Phnom Penh.

“Your economic colleagues looked around the landscape and realised that they need one more year, so they have asked me to communicate with all sectoral bodies up to the leaders that we should speak with one voice,” he said.

The bloc would therefore be born on Dec. 31, 2015.

The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) would allow free movement of goods, capital and skilled labour across a region with a combined economy of $2 trillion and 600 million people.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, countries with vastly different political and economic systems.

Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are among the poorest countries in Asia, while Indonesia is a G20 country and Singapore is a thriving global financial centre.

Surin, explaining the proposed delay to the AEC, said a number of challenges needed to be addressed, including bridging development gaps between member countries.

“The world is expecting us to get there all together,” he said, suggesting the AEC would lose credibility if it did not include all 10 ASEAN members.

A land border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia plus, more recently, competing territorial claims by four of its members, and China and Taiwan, in the South China Sea have also laid bare diplomatic differences within ASEAN.

Some analysts have suggested the AEC might not start as a fully formed bloc, and that its more developed members might have to push on with integration in a two-tier model, leaving the others at risk of missing out on regional investment. –Reuters