Concern in Southeast Asia about the formation of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015 is mounting. Members of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations have in recent years been big on rhetoric but evasive on details for such an enormous undertaking.

Current chair Brunei has attempted to change that after taking over as Asean host from Cambodia, and added a sense of urgency to plans for establishing an economic model loosely based on the European Union. The AEC, however, will not include a single parliament or currency, nor will workers be able to travel across borders at will.

Delegates at the latest conference in Brunei have called for a more united approach and an increased role for the region’s youth, whose unemployment is emerging as a key issue for Asean.

Asean has been plagued by violent differences in recent months. The bloody oppression of Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar has rattled Muslim nations Brunei, Malaysia and, in particular, the region’s powerhouse, Indonesia. The Sabah “insurgency”, launched by mercenaries and prompted by an ancient land claim from a little-known sultan in the Philippines, left more than 70 people dead.

The damming of the mekong River has proved divisive for Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, overlapping claims by China and Asean member nations have led to diplomatic and military standoffs with members of Asean, and caused political brinkmanship to challenge Asean boisterous claim that its members are working as one.

“We do admittedly face some challenges to achieve the target for establishing the Asean Community in 2015,” Hamid Jaafar, a senior Brunei politician and Asean delegate, said ahead of an Asean ministerial meeting in Brunei. He went on to stress the strong collaboration among Asean states, adding: “We are confident that we can address those challenges together as one.”

Brunei is sending steady reminders that more needs to be done if deadlines are to be met. This follows claims by Asean that 77 per cent of its work is done and negotiations can begin on a vast new trade agreement between Asean and its major dialogue and trading partners.

Pehin Hazair, current chair of the Asean Socio-Cultural Community Council, said Asean has prioritised 12 industry sectors for full integration within the AEC. Of these, five were identified as ideal launching pads for young entrepreneurs: information technology, tourism, textiles, food processing and automotive parts.

Regional socio-cultural cooperation is one of the three pillars of the Asean Community, with the other two being political-security cooperation and economic cooperation between members.

“In addition to these priority sectors, young people should also be adventurous enough to explore other potential growth areas and emerging sectors such as creative industries and green businesses, which have huge regional and global market potential,” Hazair said.

Youth unemployment in the region reached 13.1 per cent in 2012, on a par with the global average, but of Asean’s 603 million people, about a third are young. With numbers like this, the AEC will require a sharp, youthful focus if it is to make any practical sense. –Luke Hunt, The Diplomat