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Political will - not haste or squabbles - is Asean's main need

When all is said and done, Asean needs a missile-like political will for its ambitious plan of economic integration. Simply gathering together, hands locked and dressed in the host's designed costumes and issuing a joint statement, is no longer sufficient these days. Asean has to produce tangible outcomes to demonstrate an ability to achieve stated objectives within a given timeframe, even a flexible one. Asean citizens must also have confidence that when the much-awaited Asean Community (AC) comes around, they can celebrate and be ready to fit in.

At the 22nd Asean Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Asean leaders recognised there were insurmountable challenges, from all directions, to creating a genuine AC. At the moment, the focus is on the grouping's economic side, due to its measurable progress and appreciative outcomes. Other pillars - political and security as well as social and cultural - are equally important but more difficult to discern and evaluate. The latest figure of 77.54 per cent of measures successful under the Asean Economic Community (AEC) was a case in point. The scorecard was used to showcase exactly how far Asean economic integration had come in establishing trade and economic barriers.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was sanguine in reiterating some "hardest things" Asean members needed to attend to - such as agriculture, labour, aviation and the service industry. By the end of 2015, he was confident the Asean scorecard would rise to 80 per cent. Indeed, that was a doable benchmark. It would be unrealistic to expect Asean members to reach the 100 per cent threshold of liberalisation or facilitation anytime soon.

When one looks at Asean's community building, it has to be holistic and well balanced. Otherwise, the rushing-through of economic measures, especially in the remaining sensitive sectors, could backfire and generate discord among Asean members impacting on other non-economic areas. At this crucial moment, Asean cannot afford any unnecessary intra-Asean squabbling. Solidarity - something which Asean can no longer take for granted - is today not the sure thing it used to be.

Maintaining common stands on economic integration is easier than making commitments in the social/cultural and political/security areas. For instance, there is only project-based evaluation of the former - 87 completed and 73 in progress out of 329 plans of action. In the latter case, no scorecard is available for the time being. Some progress has been made in non-traditional security areas such as building capacity and institutionalised disaster relief and management. But Asean is still far behind in building common norms, values and institutions.

Therefore, news-grasping topics such as the South China Sea dispute still dominate the day-to-day security/political narratives. In that sense, the current chair, Brunei, has skilfully steered the latest summit with a good outcome on the Asean position on the South China Sea, without last year's hullabaloo. Before the meeting, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah travelled to China, the US - the grouping's two most important dialogue partners - and the Philippines, to lay the groundwork for the non-confrontational discussion on this sensitive issue. He told the Chinese leaders that Asean wanted to see progress on the drafting of a Code of Conduct (COC).

Apart from pushing for more tangible steps towards the AEC goal, Brunei's other aim was to reduce the temperature surrounding the maritime disputes and jump-start confidence-building between Asean and China, which has eroded over past years. Indeed, this will be the chair's most important singular agenda for the remaining months. To renew mutual trust that would persuade the conflicting parties back to a negotiating mood would require little more than giving and taking on both sides. The summit's rhetoric so far is helpful to build further bridges with China.

The chairman's statement opted for the inclusion of two paragraphs on the situation of last July in the South China Sea, instead of separately issuing six principles on the same issue as planned earlier. However, it remains to be seen how China will respond. The next task will be to convince China to sit down and negotiate this binding framework to manage and resolve the conflict in the disputed sea.

When the newly appointed Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Asean senior officials in early April in Beijing, he emphasised that Asean and China were bound by common ideals. Under the new Chinese leadership, he reiterated that Asean was high on China's agenda. To attend these common objectives, he urged the two sides to work closely to translate agreements into action. As the key Chinese official working with Asean colleagues in drafting the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002, he also reminded Asean not to lose confidence in its relations with China, especially in their strategic direction due to the increased involvement of major powers in the region.

In coming weeks, China and Asean have no choice but to create a conducive atmosphere that allows them to proceed with what they achieved last year. This time, they have to be both practical and realistic. After all, this year the two sides are commemorating the 10th anniversary of their "strategic partnership." China has proposed to host a special foreign ministerial meeting before the 23rd Asean summit in October for the occasion. In response, the Asean leaders welcomed the invitation and suggested the special meeting should discuss putting the South China Sea on the agenda.

To raise the comfort level, Thailand, the coordinator of Asean-China relations, is organising a high-level Asean-China Forum on August 2 to discuss the whole gamut of their relations. The 1.5 track forum will comprise officials, academics and experts. Thailand hopes this forum will serve as a venue for all concerned to share their views and assessments which could be useful for future negotiations at official level. As part of the confidence-building effort, Indonesia has also proposed a high-level expert meeting, but some Asean countries have voiced strong objections.

Without much needed progress on the COC negotiations this year, Asean-China relations could be a laughing stock for all concerned and immediately undermine their highly touted strategic partnership and values. At this juncture, both sides have to implement the DOC, which provides a framework for cooperation and confidence-building, such as in joint maritime scientific exploration and research, as well as information exchanges. These mutually agreed programmes in the disputed maritime zone could be discerned seriously and pursued to make the best of their cooperation at this difficult time.


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