IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT

Malaysia 2016 | DIPLOMACY | FOCUS: CHAIRMANSHIP OF ASEAN

Malaysia's chairmanship of the world's seventh largest economy, ASEAN, marks a high-water mark for the organization. With a population of 600 million people and GDP of $2.4 trillion, the 10-nation trading bloc is implementing the final action lines of the blueprint to create a fully-integrated ASEAN community.

On January 1st, 2015, Malaysia took over from Myanmar as Chair of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). With a “people-centric” theme underpinning this year's chairmanship, Prime Minister Najib Razak hopes to bring ASEAN closer to its citizens. On the agenda is concluding the Roadmap for an ASEAN Community (2009-15) and developing a Post-2015 Vision for the region.

ASEAN was established on August 8, 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand, with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration. Malaysia is among the five founding members, the others being Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The association has since grown to include Brunei, Lao PDR, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. Together, this group of 10 countries comprises 600 million people and represents a GDP of approximately $2.4 trillion. Its largest trading partner is China, with whom it has strong bilateral ties reinforced by the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership, in place since 1993, and by the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) enforced in 2003. FTAs exist between ASEAN and other neighboring countries namely Australia, New Zealand, Korea and Japan, as well as with the EU and India.

The three pillars on which ASEAN is founded are: political-security, economic, and socio-cultural collaboration. Through these, the ambition to create a region of peace, freedom, and prosperity for the people of South-East Asia is being realized. With a mission of One Vision, One Identity, One Community, the scope of ASEAN goes beyond simply creating a trading bloc; the association seeks to forge a regional identity and create a sense of belonging as one community.

Since 2008, ASEAN operates under a legal framework known as the ASEAN Charter, that codifies ASEAN norms, rules, and values, and reinforces the nation's commitment to implementing the ASEAN Community by 2015. The Roadmap for this, set out in 2009, sees the creation of an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), an ASEAN Political Security Community (APSC), and an ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) by the end of 2015. While the AEC is characterized by a single market and production base, the APSC promotes political development in adherence to principles of democracy, rule of law, and good governance. The ASCC is grounded on creating solidarity and unity among nations and people of ASEAN and a fostering a shared sense of responsibility.

Organizations set up to facilitate ASEAN integration include the National Secretariats of each member country, which act as the national focal point on ASEAN matters and coordinates the implementation of ASEAN decisions at the national level. In Malaysia, the ASEAN-Malaysia National Secretariat (AMNS) promotes ASEAN identity and awareness within Malaysia through outreach activities. Other important entities include the US-ASEAN Business Council, which seeks to highlight the importance of ASEAN to the US (and vice versa), and in so doing raises the profile of ASEAN on an international level.

Looking ahead, as the region becomes more integrated, it will focus on building its institutions. Currently, decisions at the ASEAN-level rely heavily on consensus between member nations, marking the main distinction between ASEAN and the EU. The EU is currently helping ASEAN in its capacity-building through funding and technical cooperation. Narrowing the development gap will remain a key priority to ensure that the benefits of ASEAN integration are fully realised and distributed equitably. With the GDP per capita (in current prices) of ASEAN's richest country, Singapore, being 32 times that of its poorest, Laos ($55,000 versus $1,700 as of 2013), the task will not be an easy one. It is also hoped that Malaysia will use its chairmanship to resolve the South China Sea dispute, which concerns claims by China and several ASEAN countries over possession of territories in the South China Sea. While plans for enlargement of ASEAN are not on the immediate agenda, the association does hope to strengthen cooperation with key partners. Within a rapidly changing and increasingly interdependent global environment, ASEAN will need to remain a relevant and proactive entity and take advantage of new opportunities that will arise in the coming years.