Set timeframe for Asean goals

For the 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" ("Transforming Asean into a community"; last Friday) - not only should member states go beyond economic cooperation, but they also have to agree on 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 - the economic, the political-security, and the socio-cultural - the two pillars of political-security and socio-cultural should be emphasised.

Two recent, related strategic concerns, for instance, warrant attention: First, the persistent problem of transboundary haze and, second, the South China Sea dispute.

Resolving the former requires commitment within Asean, and for the latter, constructive overtures with China, 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 upon 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 this year 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 - such as wide differences in gross domestic product - between and within member states will continue to be a challenge for Asean.

Hence, as the grouping strengthens economic collaboration and works to narrow socio-economic gaps, setting time-bound targets will provide Asean with the urgency to act, and give the Asean Community a more concrete road map.

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, say, a binding code of conduct?

Kwan Jin Yao

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2015, with the headline 'Set timeframe for Asean goals'. Print Edition | Subscribe