ASEAN’ Cautious Optimism

Khmer Times, 29 March 2016

At Monday’s regional conference on Cambodia and ASEAN organized by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace with the support from the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation from Germany, local and international experts praised the achievements of ASEAN over the past five decades but also raised the shortcomings and challenges facing the 10-member group.

They say ASEAN is at critical time of rising global and regional uncertainty and tensions and economic slowdown. To stay relevant, the bloc must speed up political and economic reforms, strengthen bureaucratic capacity and leadership, and further empower the people.
Visionary collective political leadership with “political will” and “political courage” are required to realize regional integration and community building, said Rene Gradwohl, the country representative of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Foundation.
The chairman and chief executive of Malaysia’s Institute for Strategic and International Studies, Tan Sri Rastam Mohd Isa, said: “ASEAN should be more ambitious.” He added the group should stick to gradual integration rather than aim at building a “supranational institution”.
Former ASEAN secretary-general Ong Keng Yong says the bloc has enjoyed extraordinary progress since its founding almost half a century ago, but a lack of trust among its diverse membership remains a challenge in implementing the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) – which aims to reduce trade barriers, from duties to the movement of labor and breaking down borders.
The AEC, which came into being this year, would effectively create a common market of 630 million people.
With a young and rapidly growing population and rising middle class, ASEAN’s own consumers will play a significant role in driving the regional economy, Mr. Ong said.
But the head of the economics unit at the Cambodia Development Research Institute, Hing Vuthy, said the Kingdom’s private sector was not yet effectively involved in regional integration and some companies were not fully aware of the AEC and its opportunities and challenges.
“The majority of enterprises are neither fully aware of the challenges the AEC will present nor prepared to capitalize on concomitant opportunities,” he said.
The gap between development levels among ASEAN countries also requires attention, he said, both from the richer members and from the group’s dialogue partners, which include China, the EU and the US.
Laos is ASEAN’s chairman this year and Yong Chanthalangsy, a for Lao ambassador to the UN and now director-general of the Institute of Foreign Affairs, said two important documents would be drawn up under Vientiane’s leadership.
The first will be the third work plan of the Initiative for ASEAN Integration to narrow the development gaps and the second, a post-2015 master plan to boost ASEAN connectivity, which will incorporate China’s plans for the new Silk Road – “One Belt, One Road” – and its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, of which Cambodia was a founding member.
Other major challenges for ASEAN are to maintain its central role in building regional architecture, and the test posed by the major powers, mainly China and the US.
The group also faces a tough job in achieving its goal of a people-centered grouping, said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, visiting research fellow at the ASEAN Studies Center of the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Isak.
This would crucially require consolidating democratic governance, people’s participation, social innovation and social entrepreneurship, he said. And to build a strong AEC it is important for regional leaders to implement political and economic reforms.
As ASEAN is the cornerstone of its foreign policy, Cambodia must show stronger commitment and leadership in strengthening ASEAN’s institutions and unity, deepening national legal and institutional reforms in line with the ASEAN blueprints and policies and promoting ASEAN’s identity and standing on the international stage.

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