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ASEAN Stands at New Starting Point for Regional Integration
   2015-11-20 18:37:31    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Li Shaotong
When the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gather here this weekend, they are expected to outline a new direction for regional integration.

When five Southeast Asian countries signed the Bangkok Declaration to establish ASEAN nearly half a century ago, few would have expected that it would develop into a 10-nation bloc grouping Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam with a total population of more than 600 million and a combined GDP of 2.57 trillion U.S. dollars in 2014.

By the end of this year, ASEAN is due to announce an ASEAN Community with three pillars: the political-security community, the economic community and the socio-cultural community, just a decade after its leaders first articulated the ambitions for an economic community.

Over the years, ASEAN has shifted its focus from common security to economic growth. That's why among ASEAN Community's three pillars, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is widely considered to be the one that will gain real traction.

AEC aims to form a single market and production base with a free flow of capital, goods and services, and ASEAN has seen its intra trade and investment rise rapidly in the past few years.

Skeptics may point out that ASEAN Community is nowhere near the European Union as the political-security and socio-cultural pillars have made less headway. Even ASEAN officials have admitted that it will fall short of the completion of the priorities outlined in the AEC Blueprint.

However, skeptics should remain cognizant of the fact that the commitment made by ASEAN countries on the establishment of the community is more significant than what has transpired.

Considering the vast development gap within ASEAN, as well as the diversity in politics, culture, region, among others, ASEAN has insisted on the "ASEAN Way," which emphasizes consensus, peaceful dialogue and non-interference.

Based on the ASEAN Way, the bloc has successfully built a platform for peace, stability and cooperation for greater development, through a series of dialogue mechanisms. During the two-day summit which will kick off here Saturday, ASEAN leaders will be joined by their counterparts from Australia, China, the United States, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

ASEAN will be under the spotlight as Southeast Asian leaders outline the post-2015 vision for further regional integration.

Economic community remains the driving force, as the trade-dependent ASEAN countries seek closer economic ties to weather the turbulent international environment and to reduce the development gap.

Efforts will be needed to further reduce non-tariff barriers, including harmonizing standards, simplifying customs procedures to facilitate the free flow of goods, services and talent.

Great potential remains to be tapped into as Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak said that ASEAN is expected to become the world's fourth largest economy by 2050.

The bigger challenge is how the ASEAN leaders could raise awareness of its people of an ever-closer integrated Southeast Asia. So far, ASEAN has been largely pushed forward by its political and economic elites. Looking forward, greater participation by the private sectors and the people is crucial.

As ASEAN Chair of the year, Malaysia has set the theme "Our people, Our Community, Our Vision" for the 27th summit. When ASEAN stands at a new starting line on Jan. 1, 2016, it will be the people who decide ASEAN's future and it will be the people who benefit most for its achievements.
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