As Brunei’s chairmanship of Asean slowly comes to an end, the country is hosting the 23rd Asean summit this week – the next in a series of talks about the “roadmap” for the 10-member bloc, which is supposed to enter the next stage of development with the launch of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) possibly by the end of 2015.
So far, the programme for the summit is vague. It says that ASEAN members will come “to discuss a wide range of political, security and economic topics with the aim of promoting stability and economic prosperity in the region”.
While there are no expectations that there will be announcements on major milestones for the AEC, the summit will see the presentation of the “Mid-Term Review of the Implementation of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint”, adopted by ASEAN leaders in 2009. Among the issues highlighted by this report are those involving youth, women, children and other vulnerable groups.
The summit will also see the adoption of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Elimination of Violence Against Children – both important agreements for the association’s members.
However, there are limited expectations that the summit will move forward with talks on security issues in the South China Sea, as it is uncertain whether the 10-member bloc will be able to complete the respective code of conduct at this summit. This is considered an important agreement that might help settle regional issues in the resource-rich maritime area.
Last but not least, the AEC will be an issue on which opinions broadly differ, not only among officials of all sorts, but also in businesses and members of the public. Asean’s work on intra-regional tariff reduction, liberalisation of trade in services, liberalisation of investment and streamlining of customs administration and procedures has been acknowledged, but it seems that fundamental discussions and negotiations are yet to be held.
A number of surveys state that many businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, are poorly prepared for the AEC, and others have come to the conclusion that the vision of a single market and production base in a highly competitive economic region, with equitable economic development and fully integrated into the global economy, will remain a vision even after 2015.
While the AEC, to a certain extent, represents the culmination of Asean’s aspirations toward regional integration, there is still much to be done in terms of public enlightenment on the goals of the AEC, and the ASEAN members should do more to broadcast the AEC benchmarks that it have already been met, and the ones that are still unmet, to reduce the amount of confusion within the region on what will really happen by the end of 2015.
It remains to be seen whether the upcoming summit will be capable of doing so. If not, it would certainly be another missed opportunity.