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Moe Thuzar -- To remain relevant, ASEAN needs a stronger nerve center

The first ASEAN summit was held in Bali, Indonesia, in 1976. (Photo courtesy of ASEAN Secretariat)

After announcing an integration, of sorts, as one "Community" in 2015, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is preparing to mark its 50th anniversary in 2017. This involves assessing accomplishments and reviewing plans for the next set of goals by 2025. How -- and by whom -- this loose plan is directed, and the nature of the group's institutions and processes, are critical to realizing these goals. The ASEAN Community Vision 2025 implicitly acknowledges the need to get such details right.

ASEAN today has a far more evolved and multilayered regional architecture than in its earlier years. The ultimate decision-makers are still the 10 heads of state or government. But more bottom-up input is finding its way into regional decisions and agreements through venues opened up by the ASEAN Charter, which took effect in December 2008. ASEAN's institutional capacity has been boosted with a larger role for the annual rotational ASEAN chair. Its Committee of Permanent Representatives works with the ASEAN secretary-general and the ASEAN Secretariat to coordinate the conduct of external relations and implementation of ASEAN decisions. Analysts have noted that enforcing the formal authority of ASEAN institutions requires stronger operational support than exists at present. Acknowledging the relative weakness of their "nerve center," ASEAN leaders committed in 2014 to strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat -- not least by boosting salaries and benefits. The move added just $2 million to the Secretariat's operational budget, bringing it to a modest $19 million in 2015 from $17 million the year before. ASEAN members contribute equally to this budget.

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