Upcoming Asean Community 'a key milestone for grouping'

But leaders aware task of integration is not over; PM Lee calls for greater collaboration on issues like terrorism, haze

US President Barack Obama (left) and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (right) attend the 27th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit Gala dinner in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 21, 2015.
US President Barack Obama (left) and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (right) attend the 27th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit Gala dinner in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 21, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

Asean leaders yesterday hailed the impending establishment of the Asean Community on Dec 31 as a significant milestone for the grouping and its ongoing efforts to preserve an environment of peace and stability in South-east Asia.

But they were aware the task of regional integration, not least economically to further improve the lot of its 625 million people, is not over.

As Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, host of the two-day Asean summit which opened here, said: "We must do more. Now we are about to become a community, we owe it to our people to commit ourselves to specific deliverables and making good on our promises."

The Asean Free Trade Area, he noted, had reduced tariffs to zero or near zero, lowering prices for people. But many non-tariff barriers remain, he said. Further liberalisation and integration under the Asean Economic Community (AEC) will raise overall gross domestic product in Asean by 7 per cent by 2025.

In remarks to fellow Asean leaders, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong flagged three areas to focus on as the grouping moves to lower barriers to trade and travel.

One, implement the remaining 20 per cent of action lines in the existing blueprint for an AEC, including those related to the liberalisation of the service sector.

Two, ratify the Asean Open Skies agreement, which would boost air travel across the region.

And three, conclude a high-quality Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership that is being negotiated among the Asean members, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

A report by the Asean Secretariat released on Friday said Asean's 10 members have implemented 92.7 per cent of the 506 targeted measures under the AEC. But the implementation rate of a full AEC scorecard of 611 measures - which includes some targets that have been deferred until after this year - stands at 79.5 per cent.

Today, Asean leaders will sign a declaration forming the Asean Community. They will also adopt a road map for the grouping till 2025, and blueprints for the AEC, the Asean Political-Security Community and Asean Socio-Cultural Community.

These will chart a course for continuing Asean integration.

At the summit, Mr Lee also called for greater Asean collaboration to tackle salient issues such as terrorism, haze and the South China Sea.

Security and intelligence agencies should step up information sharing, and countries have to continue sharing best practices on countering radical ideology.

On the haze, which was especially severe this year and affected six Asean members, Mr Lee was grateful that all members "have shown resolve to address the transboundary haze issue expeditiously".

Asean environment ministers have set the target of a haze-free Asean by 2020, and institutionalised the activation of international assistance to combat forest fires during the dry season.

"It is vital that we deepen cooperation and share information to bring errant companies to account for their irresponsible and unsustainable practices that are the root cause of land and forest fires," he said, while also calling for urgent operationalisation of the Asean haze monitoring system to tackle the problem.

As for the South China Sea, Mr Lee said the issue had become a test of Asean unity and effectiveness. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping territorial claims with China in the area, and recent activities, such as land reclamation and a military build-up, have raised concern from members.

"We must affirm our commitment to the important principle of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. Any miscalculations at sea could escalate into conflicts that threaten regional peace and stability," he said, calling for progress on a Code of Conduct to minimise tensions.

"We must continue to urge all parties to exercise maximum restraint, refrain from provocative actions or the use of force, and commit to accident prevention measures and the non-militarisation of land features in the South China Sea."

Indonesian President Joko Widodo also stressed the importance of Asean in maintaining the peace that enabled it to make rapid progress. "Without Asean unity and centrality, the region will be a venue for big-power rivalry," he said.

The leaders also met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Barack Obama, and discussed prospects for greater cooperation on economic and strategic matters. Asean and eight key partners will meet at the East Asia Summit today.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline 'Upcoming Asean Community 'a key milestone for grouping''. Subscribe