The long-awaited project to integrate the economies of Asean’s 10 member states is seen as moving forward, slowly, while marred by political divisions. Asean nations should revisit their initial commitments and review their plans, regional analysts say.
A lack of “supranational authority” has added to the slow pace of integration, leaving the Asean Economic Community “the same as before”, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Thailand’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, told VOA Khmer.
“First, Asean doesn’t have any supranational authority. It is, ultimately, a self-help or sovereign system in each country – each economy has its own jurisdiction authority. It’s not so easy to promote economic integration when you have no supranationality,” he said.
“[The AEC] doesn’t have momentum, and reality on the ground hasn’t really changed. So it’s kind of the way that Asean works: They always have agreements and implementation is always a challenge,” he added.
The AEC, which came into effect at the end of 2015, was the starting point for future Asean integration of the political and security regimes.
Through economic integration, Asean hoped it could create a truly common market, which would raise the global competitiveness of the regional economy.
But at a meeting in Malaysia last year, Asean governments adopted a new plan for economic integration, extending the period of integration until 2025.
“The formal integration is not happening, and partly, this is because of the Asean’s institutional frameworks, also partly because of the geography. You have land countries and sea countries. And in the sea, the maritime states, you have thousands and thousands of islands,” Pongsudhirak said.
Deth Sok Udon of Phnom Penh’s Zaman University, said the “blurred lines” between national sovereignty and communal organizing had been ill-defined.
“The real problem of Asean these days is that it is taking ‘too gradual’ steps. It lacks strength and power as a community standing up as one voice to the superpowers,” Deth said.
“Though it perhaps cannot tear down the bloc, this demands Asean leaders to question among themselves what kind of community they want: an elevated bloc equivalent to the superpowers, or just appreciating what we have achieved so far.”
The dispute over the South China Sea has also marred efforts toward integration in recent years, as four of the claimants are Asean members.
In July, a ruling by the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration decided against China’s claim to the so-called “nine-dash line”.
Failing to get a consensus, an Asean foreign ministerial meeting in Vientiane in July did not issue a joint communiqué in support of the PCA ruling.
The divide and dispute comes in the midst of competition between a rapidly rising China and the United States, whose President Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with Asia was aimed at maintaining U.S. hegemony in the region.
Deth of Zaman University said it was time for Asean leaders to talk openly and directly about the problem.
“For my part, I think Asean leaders should implement a policy of having Asean as the main basis [of policy]. Though sometimes, some of them are biased towards a superpower, they should not show off their bias too openly.”
Chulalongkorn University’s Pongsudhirak said the key to restoring Asean unity is to focus on building people-to-people relations as part of an “Asean Sociocultural Community” which he said can “glue” Asean countries together.
“The future is not bright unless the Asean leaders and Asean people can regroup [and] reunite for a collective cause and collective action,” he added.