Asean meetings: Solid progress noted in regional integration

Ministers at the Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur.
Ministers at the Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Members effected 97% of measures pledged, but stepped-up efforts needed in years ahead

Asean member countries have made substantial progress in living up to their commitments to form a closer-knit region as their leaders gather here today, said the grouping's top bureaucrat.

With six weeks to go before the Asean Community is declared, Asean secretary-general Le Luong Minh told The Straits Times that the 10 countries have implemented 97 per cent of measures they had pledged to carry out.

All targets for political-security cooperation and socio-cultural cooperation have been met. And 92.7 per cent of the targets for an Asean Economic Community (AEC) have been achieved, he added.

"The establishment of the Asean Community is a big milestone for Asean community-building and integration," he said. But efforts to boost integration and build a sense of community among the governments and their 625 million people are by no means done, he added.

They need to be stepped up in the years ahead, particularly, moves to bridge the development gap between the older Asean members and more recent entrants.

 

Leaders will also commit to a new, 10-year roadmap for the grouping tomorrow.

Yesterday, Asean ministers met to take stock of the progress made ahead of today's Asean Summit.

Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan later told reporters the Asean Community is of "critical importance". Asean, he said, has given over 600 million people in Southeast Asia a zone of peace and stability, enabling it to prosper and grow.

"It has given us an opportunity to improve the livelihoods of people throughout South-east Asia."

He also noted that Asean provided a framework for countries in the region to work together to tackle cross-border challenges, from crime and terrorism to the haze, even as there remains "quite a lot of work that still needs to be done".

Officials note that major powers also see Asean as a player they have to engage with when making decisions that affect this region.

The East Asia Summit, to be held tomorrow, remains the sole platform that brings together Asean and eight of its key partners, including China and the United States.

 

Two topics in the news of late are set to draw their attention: terrorism and maritime security.

Asean ministers and their partners are keen to step up cooperation to combat extremism in a more holistic manner.

But maritime issues will prove more challenging. Mr Minh noted that Asean members are concerned about developments in the South China Sea, where Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims with China.

Beijing's recent reclamation work to build artificial islands there has aroused concern.

Mr Minh welcomed Asean and China agreeing recently to start consultations on elements for a Code of Conduct that will set guidelines for parties involved to manage tensions and avoid conflict. But he added: "We see a gap between this political commitment and the real situation at sea."

Meanwhile, Dr Balakrishnan said it is early days yet for a Code to be reached. "But as long as we can take steps forward in a peaceful way to resolve differences, then we are on the right track," he said. "It will be a long journey."

He noted some may criticise Asean's approach in relying on consensus to move forward on matters. But the approach also means that progress, when made, "is more substantive and more permanent".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2015, with the headline 'Solid progress noted in regional integration '. Print Edition | Subscribe