In the midst of a gathering geopolitical storm, South-east Asia's 52-year-old grouping made the call to proceed with two ambitious and far-reaching endeavours that will cement the region's topmost priorities: trade and security. Meeting in Bangkok last weekend, Asean leaders signalled their commitment to press on with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a new mother lode for the region's export-driven economies. Proposed in 2012, the RCEP aims to link the region with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand to form the world's largest trading pact.
If initialled at the year-end - or if substantial headway is made in talks - it would count as a significant achievement at a time when the world's two largest economies are staring eyeball to eyeball in an escalating trade war. A possible hurdle is India's reluctance to open up its markets for fear that a flood of cheap Chinese goods will edge out its own manufacturers. India also wants provisions that ease the movement of workers, a sticking point with other partners. There is no easy solution but for New Delhi to opt out would undermine its "Act East" policy and the pact's potential.