WASHINGTON, D.C. - When the Asean Regional Forum came to a discordant end in Phnom Penh last month, analysts say the aftermath has exposed two brands of failure.
There were the more blatant shortcomings, like the inability to draft legitimate plans for resolving territorial conflict in the South China Sea, and then there were the consequences of these failings: a neglect of timely issues that have now found a place on Asean’s backburner.
Plans for economic integration in Southeast Asia were among the topics to hear little constructive discourse, as has been the case since Southeast Asian foreign ministers first drafted the outline for a “stronger, more united, cohesive Asean” in 2008.
The plans call for the establishment of the Asean Economic Community: a multilateral economic entity that will blanket Southeast Asian countries with a single-market system with the open flow of goods, services, capital, and investment. It is a comprehensive goal, fundamentally economic in theory but inevitably political and sociocultural in consequence, and an ambitious one, Asean officials and representatives have come to realize.
The Roadmap for an Asean Community, published in 2009 as a manual of sorts for the cohesion process, holds 2015 as the point at which the world will see clear results of the efforts in economic integration. The Community’s six-year construction period is now half over, with little marked improvement in terms of economic unification.
The plans themselves are broad-reaching and written with the trademark ambiguity of most Asean initiatives, touting the envisioned body as a “rules-based community of values and norms.”
The most substantive step towards unification since 2009 has been the implementation of the Asean Single Window – a loosening of customs standards, thus far only in certain member states – a process that “took years, step by step by step,” Gregory Poling, a research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said.
Baby-step progress, Poling said, is par for the course in Asean legislation, and that further steps in the creation of the Asean Economic Community will follow the same tempo. In other words, the 2015 benchmark is an empty one.
“You’re going to see it in every single effort,” Poling said. “Asean will set a timetable and say, ‘we’ll have currency markets linked by X date.’ When X date comes along, they’ll be at step one of five, and then they’ll all agree through consensus that they’ll go through step two, step three, and so on, until it’s finally finished.”
At present, what defines the network of Asean’s constituent countries as a whole is precisely that which does not. The 10 states that belong to the body are politically, financially, and culturally disparate, falling along a spectrum capped on one end by Singapore, with one of the world’s most developed capitalist economies, and on the other by nations like Laos, which appears without fail on the United Nations’ annual list of the world’s least developed countries.
Poling argues that this development gap is fundamentally prohibitive to integration: countries like Cambodia and Laos simply lack the capacity to keep up.
Accommodating the limitations of these countries often proves to be a matter of hindsight, resulting in a regular reevaluation of goals and schedules that ultimately leaves the underdog states – those on the mainland, generally – in the dust.
“Asean is notoriously bad at setting realistic timetables for things, and notoriously bad at changing those timetables when it becomes apparent that they’re not realistic,” Poling said. “[This] is why they make vague pronouncements like ‘the less developed countries will be exempted from these requirements until such a time where they are able to fulfill them.’ This essentially means ‘we’re going to move ahead minus mainland southeast Asia until they decide they’re ready to join.’”
Progress also falls short in the face of the region’s ideological clashes, exemplified by the disorder over the South China Sea issue at the Asean Regional Forum in Phnom Penh. The inability of Asean leaders to draft a clear plan for resolving the issue was amplified by heated disagreements and allegations of corruption, suggesting to many a fundamental lack of concord in Southeast Asia.
In short, Poling said, any real plans for Asean as an integrated, unified economic entity within the designated timeframe are “aspirational.” Progress will be seen most clearly on the upper end of the demographic spectrum, with middle-level countries like Malaysia and Thailand gaining the most traction. Ostensibly, the blueprints depict something similar in both fashion and function to the European Union, a parallel that has drawn concern in the wake of the Eurozone financial crisis.
Poling dismisses this similarity, expounding the words of Asean leaders.
“The EU is an entirely different model of integration than Asean,” reads a fact sheet distributed by Asean officials in 2008 to clarify concerns written in the blueprint for the Asean Economic Community.
Poling elaborates, citing crucial differences between Europe and Southeast Asia. Europe’s history is one of perennial conflict across the borders within it, contrasted with the relative isolationism of each of the individual nations in Southeast Asia. Above all, though, it remains an issue of disparity: the gaps in capacity between certain Asean member states are perhaps too wide to bridge.
“Look at the Eurozone,” Poling said. “Look at a place like Germany compared to Greece. That is one tiny, tiny fraction of the gap between a Singapore and a Laos.”
In the wake of Europe’s financial crisis, Asean leaders have further reevaluated their plans for cohesion. Asean has no plans for the creation of a common currency or political identity – defining hallmarks of the European Union – and if they did, recent history would question their potential efficacy.
For now, Poling said, Asean will continue to pursue the “low-hanging fruit” of integration opportunities: logistically tenable developments that, if nothing else, will tether the weakest countries in the region with stronger bodies.