SINGAPORE — The Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) has set itself an ambitious target to become an integrated and cohesive community by the end of the year, but its overall efforts are falling short.

Analysts and officials interviewed by TODAY said the results for economic integration are more tangible than efforts to forge political cohesiveness and promote a common regional identity.

The ASEAN community 2015 target is supported by three pillars. Economically, the group aims to be a highly competitive entity. Politically, ASEAN aspires towards a rules-based community that is peaceful and resilient. In terms of sociocultural development, it aims to build a common identity among its people and narrow the development gap among members.

The work under these pillars is guided by separate blueprints that map out various measures that have to be put in place by Dec 31.

“The ASEAN Economic Community will be the most obviously successful among the three pillars of the 2015 target … There is still a long way to go before we get to a Political Security Community … As for the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC), the main challenge is the mobilisation of resources,” said Mr Ong Keng Yong, executive deputy chairman of Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies and former ASEAN secretary-general in an interview with TODAY.

ECONOMIC GAINS TANGIBLE

The 25th ASEAN Summit statement in November last year indicated that the bloc had implemented 82.1 per cent of measures contained in its Economic Community blueprint. Member states agreed to fast-track the remaining measures this year.

Analysts were less certain about how the remaining measures would be fast-tracked, since they involve the harmonisation of domestic policies with ASEAN-wide rules.

However, these latest measures contained in the Economic Community blueprint should be seen as a continuation of the region’s economic integration efforts over the longer term, they said.

An important part of the blueprint is to fully implement the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA). Concluded in 1992, the AFTA aims to eliminate all tariffs and non-tariff barriers in intra-ASEAN trade to make the region more economically efficient and competitive.

Intra-ASEAN trade doubled from 2003 to 2013, reaching almost US$500 billion (S$680 billion) by end-2013, said the World Bank.

“The ASEAN Economic Community actually already exists,” said Mr Ong, “but we always say it is work in progress because, if we say the work has been completed, people will stop pushing ahead.”

Especially for the group’s newer members (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, also known as CLMV), the Economic Community building measures have helped drive their national reform agendas as they transition towards full-fledged market economies, said Asian Development Bank lead economist Jayant Menon.

While CLMV has until 2018 to eliminate all import duties for intra-ASEAN trade, all other member countries will meet this target by Dec 31.

INABILITY TO SPEAK WITH ONE VOICE

In contrast to the bloc’s economic integration, efforts to form the Political Security Community to coordinate regional security policies have been hampered by rising tensions in the South China Sea and the bloc’s inability to speak with one voice on the issue.

Manila last year challenged Beijing’s claim to much of the South China Sea at an international tribunal at the Hague.

The Philippines said then that it had exhausted political and diplomatic avenues in resolving the case, but some described the move as a break from ASEAN’s approach of carrying out consultations with China as a bloc.

Despite the impasse, it may be too early to dismiss ASEAN’s political-integration efforts. Since the group’s formation in 1967, it has enjoyed reasonable success in promoting regional stability and fostering a conducive environment for dialogue and cooperation.

“ASEAN has been a bastion of security for the region. It could have moved faster, but one must be reminded of the need to balance the boat,” said Mr Jaime Naval, assistant professor of the Department of Political Science at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

INVESTMENTS NEEDED FOR IDENTITY BUILDING

What is unique about the sociocultural pillar is that it has the dual objectives of building a common regional identity and narrowing the development gap among countries.

The ASEAN Secretariat has reported that more than 90 per cent of measures listed in the ASCC blueprint have been completed.

However, unlike the case of economic integration, many of the benefits under the sociocultural pillar are intangible.

The sense among analysts is that more needs to be done, especially in “making sure people understand what regional cooperation means”, said Ms Moe Thuzar, a lead researcher at the ASEAN Studies Centre, who studies the ASCC. “This feeds into developing a regional identity.”

However, developing a strong regional identity can happen only if the right investments are made.

“The ASCC’s focus is ultimately on human development and, moving forward, it is important to invest in people. The first step is to enhance education efforts and create meaningful employment for ASEAN citizens,” said Ms Pilar Berse, an instructor at the Department of Political Science of Ateneo de Manila University, who also studies the ASCC.

Malaysia, the current group chair, has identified instilling a greater sense of ASEAN consciousness in the region’s people as a key issue.

Announcing the priorities for Malaysia’s chairmanship last November, Prime Minister Najib Razak said: “We hope to steer ASEAN closer to the people of South-east Asia and make this institution part of their daily lives by creating a people-centred ASEAN.”

Attempts to contact the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for further comment were unsuccessful.

ASEAN integration will continue well beyond this year, with progress being gradual rather than dramatic, analysts believe.

“We should not be obsessed with 2015 as a big bang. It is not a deadline, but a marker of progress. ASEAN integration is a long journey and there are many miles ahead of us. Now that we have started to integrate economically, other benefits such as enhanced mutual understanding will follow,” said Associate Professor Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. –http://www.todayonline.com/world/asean-falling-short-aim-integrated-community?singlepage=true