By He Jing, Xie Meihua, Zhao Bochao
KUALA LUMPUR, Nov. 20 (Xinhua) — The realization of the ASEAN Community and its post-2015 progress will be of the priority concern as leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) converge here for their biannual summit that starts on Saturday.
It has been hoped that by the end of this year, the long-envisaged ASEAN Community will no longer be a slogan, but a reality the region will need to embrace.
The summit is expected to witness the adoption of the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the Establishment of the ASEAN Community and the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together, paving the way for the regional grouping’s future growth and prosperity.
Earlier 2015 has reported the completion of 90 percent of groundwork for the ASEAN Community and it seems that a rough framework could be set up but details are yet to be seen, observers cautioned.
The realization of ASEAN Community as outlined in the “Roadmap for an ASEAN Community 2009-2015” where all 10 members aim to achieve uniformity of rules and seamless physical, infrastructural and people-to-people connectivity should be viewed as a milestone rather than a destination in creating a truly integrated region, they noted.
Discussions on efforts to develop a vision to 2025 for further integration and growth of ASEAN Community will also be on the agenda of the leaders’ summit.
Founded in 1967, ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. It has developed into the world’s 7th largest economy.
The establishment of ASEAN Community is believed to be crucial not only to cultivating tangible changes to the livelihood and well-being of its 633 million people but also to maintaining the vitality and competitiveness of Southeast Asia.
Under the ambitious plan covering three pillars — the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), Political-Security Community and Socio-Cultural Community, economic integration has been a key focus over the years.
Mainly defined by such factors as a single market and a production base, a competitive economic region, equitable economic development and integration with the world economy, AEC has been the most productive in terms of free trade of goods with significant tariff reductions among ASEAN members.
However, non-tariff barriers, fierce competition in a single market and huge development gaps among ASEAN members pose great challenges in the integration process, observers said.
“It’s unlikely to have unanimous consensus on this and inevitably some particular areas of each country have to be waived, and that’s how similar regional integration gets things done,” said Dr. Simon Shen, associate professor & director of global studies programme of faculty of social science of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Ahead of the summit on Thursday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak revealed that the implementation rate of AEC measures have reached 92.7 percent with 469 measures carried out, 37 still pending and some to be addressed on a priority basis early next year.
“ASEAN might have missed or may miss some deadlines, but in general, we are moving strongly ahead,” the prime minister said.
Also due for completion by end-2015 are talks on a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest free trade agreement grouping ASEAN, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Negotiations for the RCEP, launched in November 2012, have been held 10 rounds so far with the latest round being conducted in mid-October in South Korea’s southern port city of Busan.
The conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement in early October could give impetus for RCEP, the Asia-wide equivalent, to finally gain some traction, trade analysts said.
And they warned the RCEP negotiations remain a daunting task due to different development levels and varied stances among participating nations.
“The level of economic development in the region is so different, making immediate integration highly impractical, there must be some complicated waivers here and there to make things work,”Shen said.
There is also a call for more progress on the other pillars of integration, namely political-security and socio-cultural, since maximizing synergies across the three pillars is considered just as important.
The real test for the ASEAN Community, therefore, will lie in the years ahead.