“The ASEAN Community, which will take effect formally on December 31 this year, is a metaphor of the art of diplomatic possibility” (Transforming ASEAN Into A Community, The Straits Times Editorial).
For the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, Community to take root – which is an ambitious attempt to “unite 625 million people belonging to different economic, ethnic, and legal systems into a region with even a minimal sense of common purpose and destiny” (ST, Nov. 27) – not only should member states go beyond economic cooperation per se, but they also have to agree upon more specific, time-bound goals for the future. This is especially crucial with a decision-making process marked by the need for consensus, and the consequent need for ASEAN to involve all 10 member states in discourse.
Of the three objectives laid out by the regional organisation – economic, political-security, and socio-cultural – the two pillars of political-security and socio-cultural should be emphasised. Two recent, related strategic concerns, for instance, warrant attention and challenge the centrality and strength of the forthcoming: first, the persistent problem of transboundary haze; and second, the South China Sea dispute. Resolving the former requires commitment within ASEAN, and constructive overtures with China for the latter, though recent efforts to resolve both have been far from encouraging.
Economic considerations – in this vein – should function as a pillar, as they have for years. What it should continue to be is a foundation through which strategic depth is built, and a platform through which member states can collectively exert pressure or apply leverage when negotiating with external partners. The goal of regional economic integration by 2015 has already been enshrined by the ASEAN Economic Community, and this blueprint was preceded by free trade agreements as well as the ASEAN Free Trade Area.
Yet inequities between and within member states will continue to be a challenge for ASEAN. Singapore for instance has a nominal GDP per capita of about S$36,200, almost 10 times the ASEAN average of S$3,900, even though it has a comparatively high Gini coefficient – a measure of income inequality – of 0.464 (0.412 after government taxes and transfers).
Hence, as it strengthens economic collaboration and works to narrow the socio-economic gaps, setting time-bound targets will provide ASEAN with the urgency to act, and give the ASEAN Community a more concrete roadmap. For the issues of transboundary haze and the South China Sea dispute, agreements or rhetorical declarations have not necessarily translated into tangible action. Having ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, will Indonesia enhance enforcement mechanisms, and with the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, can the regional association lay down more specific goals or expected milestones for a binding Code of Conduct, for example? Unless there is such resolve, little can be expected of this new undertaking.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.