The 16th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit is just days away. One of the pertinent subjects that will captivate the meeting will be the evolving regional architecture and the central role of ASEAN.
The ASEAN Economic Ministers who met in February in Malaysia reiterated the importance of maintaining the organization’s centrality in East Asia by pledging to implement their economic commitments and keeping the region open to trade.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan had earlier warned that ASEAN cannot afford to be complacent if it wants to continue to be the fulcrum of the regional architecture in East Asia and a locomotive for the rise of Asia.
Can ASEAN realistically create the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) that is integrated and outward looking by “process-based regionalism” alone?
While “process-based regionalism” — the series of meetings, dialogues, consultations and engagements that ASEAN has put in place for internal economic integration and relations with its major trading partners — has produced spectacular results for ASEAN as convenor of regional meetings and pace-setter for ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3, and East Asia Summit these institutional processes alone may not be adequate to maintain ASEAN’s centrality and to achieve the AEC by 2015.
To meet its goals, ASEAN must ensure the substantive implementation of its economic agreements, declarations, plans and programs. I call this form of regionalism supported by concrete results and outcomes based on a structured and rules-based regime “results-based regionalism”.
The entry into force of the ASEAN Charter in late 2008 and the adoption of a comprehensive AEC Blueprint in 2007 with specific targets and timelines and a scorecard to track compliance will help to steer ASEAN in the right direction.
But implementation is a real challenge that needs to be addressed head on. The first AEC scorecard of October 2009 showed that ASEAN has only achieved about 74 percent in terms of implementing its regional economic commitments for 2008-2009 under the AEC Blueprint.
First, the ASEAN countries must ratify agreements that they have entered into. Of the economic agreements only 73 percent of them have been ratified by all ASEAN countries.
While the rate of ratification is expected to increase with the AEC scorecard in place now, these countries will have to look at ratifying them in a timely manner so that integration could be speeded up.
More importantly, ASEAN countries will have to transpose these regional commitments into national obligations through their respective domestic processes and at a quicker pace.
The domestic legal enactments relating to ASEAN commitments could be monitored as part of the scorecard process. A transformation of mindset from “national interest to regional action” to “regional interest to national action” is also necessary for community-building as a whole.
Second, ASEAN countries should devote greater financial and human resources for internal integration and external engagements. ASEAN free trade agreements should be more actively monitored and
The development of an ASEAN single market and production base will require strong regional connectivity in terms of transport links; information communications technology networks; trade facilitation measures, particularly the simplification and harmonization of custom procedures and standards and conformity; energy and food security; tourism and so on.
The decision of the ASEAN leaders to establish a high level task force to look into a master plan on regional connectivity is indeed an important step. But this must be tied closely to the resources needed to implement the hardware and software of regional connectivity once the master plan is ready.
The ASEAN finance ministers are working on setting-up an infrastructure fund, which would aid the connectivity plan.
Third, ASEAN countries should actively address the non-implementation of regional commitments, which should include capacity building to tackle any inadequacies in implementing commitments; peer reviews for sharing and learning of best practices as well as transparency and confidence-building; and utilizing the dispute settlement mechanism already in place to resolve issues in a rules-based manner.
There could also be specific target-setting to encourage ASEAN to achieve more. For example, there could be specific targets for bringing down the costs of doing business in ASEAN. A robust regional surveillance mechanism is necessary to track emerging risks and to address them in a timely manner.
Fourth, the private sector of ASEAN must be the principal driver of regional economic integration. There should be regular sector-specific dialogues with the business community so that ASEAN can address their concerns and create a more facilitating environment for doing business in the region. More technical meetings of ASEAN in the economic arena could also be opened up to the participation of the business community, where possible.
More efforts are needed to better engage the peoples of ASEAN, in particular the civil society, the strategic think-tanks and economic institutes to tap their expertise and knowledge.
A good intellectual foundation and peoples’ participation will provide a stronger underpinning for the development and consolidation of the AEC.
Finally, if the ASEAN private sector is the “driver” of economic integration, the ASEAN Secretariat must be the “lubricant” of this integration. The ASEAN Economic Ministers at their last meeting had given their strongest endorsement yet for an enhanced role of the Secretariat.
A strengthened Secretariat can contribute more to regional economic surveillance; compliance monitoring; economic dispute settlement; and implementing major economic integration programs funded by ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners. ASEAN must explore the tremendous potential of developing the ASEAN Secretariat and the Committee of Permanent Representatives of ASEAN to become progressive institutions for regional community-building.
The time left for the establishment of the AEC is less than six years. A greater sense of urgency is needed. To maintain ASEAN’s centrality in the region and to achieve the goal of AEC by 2015 it is imperative that ASEAN shifts aggressively towards “result-based regionalism”. We must act now.
The writer is the deputy secretary-general of ASEAN for ASEAN Economic Community.
The views expressed are personal.