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Building a better bloc requires 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.

Even so, the challenge continues for more nimble responses to emergencies. ASEAN is not a supranational entity -- the 10 member countries operate on the basis of consensus and noninterference. The end result is often a compromise. This may still be the "better than nothing" option for ASEAN in the face of existing realities in Southeast Asia, including the shifting strategic dynamics that surround it.

ASEAN as a political community came into being in 1967 with a commitment by its five founding member states to the group's principles emphasizing sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, freedom from external interventions, and noninterference in each other's internal affairs. Regional security is the logical extension of ASEAN's founding imperatives. Economic survival drives the push for a seamless regional market. The challenge of making ASEAN relevant to its people looms ever larger, as does the imperative of internalizing this relevance nationally, regionally and in interactions with major powers and key partners in various ASEAN-led regional processes.

Rivalries in the South China Sea continue to occupy ASEAN's attention in all aspects of political and security cooperation, even amid the rising concerns over terrorism and the role of the Islamic State group. Among other pressing issues, the risk of vulnerability to a widening array of transnational crimes ranks high for regional security discussions. Overall, ASEAN's ability to manage and mediate South China Sea tensions continues to be a dominant concern, as the dynamics of bilateral and regional interests have affected ASEAN's unity of purpose and its much-vaunted central role in forging a collective regional position on key issues. ASEAN's time-honored modus operandi of consultation and consensus has found new nuances as member states confront hard choices between domestic and regional priorities.

ECONOMIC IMPERATIVES Domestic support for regional commitments is vital for the next phase of the ASEAN Economic Community. Customs procedures are to be streamlined regionwide through the ASEAN Single Window, which will link national customs and trade regimes. Only seven ASEAN members (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) are ASW-ready. An effective regional policy -- essentially national in application -- will take some time. Newer members have until 2018 to meet their AEC commitments, and some of the original members are seeking similar extensions. ASEAN states have also sought more flexibility to achieve services liberalization, extending the deadline for the financial sector to 2020. Transport and logistics costs between and within ASEAN countries are still high, hampering aspirations for smooth trade facilitation. Raising ASEAN's competitiveness thus relies heavily on infrastructure and institutional capabilities.

These are all crucial components to the group's aim to improve connectivity both within the region and to the global supply chain if ASEAN is to add value to its free trade agreements with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Yet the private sector in ASEAN countries, especially the numerous small and midsize enterprises, still needs to engage more deeply in regional processes.

Meanwhile there are questions about ASEAN's regional moves and any associated benefits for its 630 million people. Regional goals for human development and security, environmental sustainability and a shared sense of community need to resonate with national priorities and local needs. ASEAN cooperation can assist social transformations, particularly in the transition economies, but to do so also requires people in various ASEAN member states to view regional cooperation alongside the realities of daily life.

More communication between policy, research and business can help bridge the challenges of implementation and coordinating delivery, boost the caliber of awareness and discussion about ASEAN, give proper context to sensitive topics and reach out to the bloc's wider populace. Improved information and coordination can only result in reduced barriers for business, leisure and education within the region.

Nevertheless, ASEAN has come far from its inception amid Cold War rivalries and is now engaging a diverse set of Southeast Asian nations around shared aspirations. That alone should provide both inspiration and an impetus toward the next milestone.

Moe Thuzar is a fellow and lead researcher at the ASEAN Studies Centre of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

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