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An ASEAN Community gathers pace?

Updated On: May 16, 2006

Following close on the trail of the inaugural ASEAN defence ministers meeting which ended with a declaration for cooperation and a reaffirmation of their commitment to establishing an ASEAN Security Community (ASC) by 2020, ASEAN economic ministers are currently meeting in Manila to accelerate the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community - are all these more words or signs that ASEAN is finally getting its act together?

While no major initiatives had been expected from the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) - the first in ASEAN’s four decades of existence - it is seen as representing a major shift in the regional grouping's focus from political and economic issues to security, and an important attempt to bolster security ties and shelve historic tensions.  M.C. Abad, spokesman for ASEAN’s secretary-general said “The establishment of the defense ministers’ meeting reflects ASEAN’s seriousness in carrying out the ASEAN Security Community plan of action.”  Officials expect the annual dialogues to strengthen ASEAN's voice in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

The ministers welcomed the prevailing peaceful and stable inter-state relations in South-East Asia but agreed that security challenges remained, and that continued efforts should be taken to address them.  Countering terrorism and the security in the Strait of Malacca were areas were cooperation could be stepped up.  Ministers also agreed more generally to promote regional peace and stability through dialogue and cooperation in defence and security; pledging to work towards the goal of the ASC to bring political and security cooperation to a higher plane, as part of the vision for an integrated ASEAN community by 2020.  They also briefed each other on the situation in their own countries and exchanged views on the current regional and international security situation. 

For now, it is unknown whether the ADMM will expand beyond dialogue to having military collaboration, joint exercise, a regional peace-keeping force or extradition treaties, but the host and chair of the inaugural ADMM, Datuk Najib said that senior defence officials would be meeting in the future to draft the framework for ADMM's future engagements, though only at a pace comfortable for ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making process.

The absence of military-run Myanmar marred the meeting and underscored the difficulty the group faces in fostering unity.  It was unclear whether Myanmar's decision to stay away was due to its displeasure over growing ASEAN pressure for it to speed up democratic reforms.  Yangon had said in a letter that it could not attend the meeting due to pressing domestic concerns, leaving officials mystified and expressing the hope that they would attend next year's talks in Singapore.

After concluding last week’s historic defence talks, ASEAN economic ministers are meeting in Manila to discuss the progress towards ASEAN Economic Community.  Also in the agenda is the free trade agreement with South Korea, and possibly some discussion on the lack of progress in the negotiations for an ASEAN-India FTA due to domestic pressures on Manmohan Singh government to go slow on liberalizing imports.  

Officials said that during their two-day working retreat, the ministers will explore ways to push forward the integration of their economies into a single market and production base to 2015, instead of 2020.  The proposal to accelerate the formation of an AEC was made at the ASEAN Summit last year as ASEAN leaders sought to boost ASEAN's economic clout amid concerns of increasing competition from the emerging economies of China and India.  As momentum for East Asian integration gathers steam, speeding up regional integration takes on a renewed urgency, with the grouping struggling to remain in the driver's seat of the East Asia Summit.  ASEAN secretary-general Ong Keng Yong said that in order to do this, ASEAN must be competitive and have certain leverages – an integrated ASEAN economy - otherwise focus will be more on China and India.

While the regional grouping has been working on an ASEAN Free Trade Area for the past decade, in reality, member countries remain disparate markets separated by wide development gaps between its older member nations and its newer members.  Officials said cumbersome border formalities, barriers to the flow of goods and services, and restrictive business practices hinder growth in ASEAN.  Ong admitted progress in liberalizing trade in services and harmonizing custom procedures in the region was taking longer than expected.  The ministers are expected to discuss the sorting out of technicalities to see how they can accelerate progress on the AEC.

Sources:

Asean defense ministers to promote regional peace (Bernama, 9 May 2006)

Asean defence ministers aim for security community (AFP, 9 May 2006)

Asean reaffirms security community (Straits Times, 10 May 2006)

ASEAN defense ministers agree to bolster security ties, but Myanmar stays away (AP, 10 May 2006)

Asean defence ministers agree on regional security (The Star, 10 May 2006)

Asean defense chiefs aim for security community by 2020 (Manila Times, 10 May 2006)

RI Stressed importance of security in Malacca, S`pore Straits (ANTARA, 10 May 2006)

ASEAN economic ministers to meet in Manila on Monday (AFP, May 14, 2006)

ASEAN trade ministers meet to accelerate creation of European-style economic community (AP, 14 May 2006)