The Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the establishment of an Asean Community this week will go down in the history of South-east Asia as the second step in the evolution of a contemporary regional unity. The first was the Bangkok Declaration on the establishment of the Association of South-east Asian Nations itself in 1967. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand formed the core of a non-communist grouping born in the midst of the Cold War that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union, with China hovering large on the Asian theatre of that war.
Today, Asean has not only survived and grown to include Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, but it has also expanded its functional ambit to encompass three critical pillars in the existence of any regional organisation: the economic, the political-security, and the socio-cultural. The Asean Community, which will take effect formally on Dec 31 this year, is a metaphor of the art of diplomatic possibility. It is no mean feat just to try 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. As worthy as an idea is to regional leaders, their people might view Asean quite differently. Consider how anti-euro sentiments surface across the continent, even years after the formation of the European Community.
Hence, much work lies ahead to pull the Asean Community together. Its key pillar being the economic, the abolition of tariff barriers to intra-Asean trade, welcome in itself, will need to be complemented by the elimination of non-tariff barriers and obstacles to services trade. For example, the ratification of open skies agreements would co-opt the lucrative aviation sector into the community's expansive economic agenda. And the elimination of mobile roaming fees within Asean would help to cement its economic credibility among consumers. People must be able to readily see how they can benefit from a transparent and predictable business environment. From being an essentially diplomatic organisation, Asean needs to encourage a natural sense of affinity among its peoples by forging trade, communication and other ties.
From a geopolitical perspective, the rise of China and India offers welcome economic opportunities, but it could pose severe challenges as well if strategic divergence between the two Asian giants increases. South-east Asia must not be held hostage to extra-regional disputes. Likewise, it should not become a party to the global tussle for influence between a status quo America and a rising China. A critical way in which Asean can stay out of the exclusive orbit of any one power is to develop economic and strategic coherence of its own. The Asean Way must increasingly be associated with the community way.