At the ASEAN Economic Ministers (AEM) Retreat in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, an AEC blueprint was adopted for enhancing trade liberalization in ASEAN and also for establishing the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) between years 2010 and 2015.
This move to establish the ASEAN Economic Community is a strong idea to me, having already written my own book on the topic, entitled, Communitarianism, in which I propose the concept of communities established at micro level. My book asserts seven common principles for use when establishing a community, which are: common goals, benefits, rules, activities, ownership, management and learning. These common principles may be applied as the conceptual framework for analyzing the possibility of establishing AEC.
Though all ASEAN countries may explicitly share the same common vision in establishing AEC between 2010 and 2015, and may have a completely outworked and practical plan that will succeed in achieving the goal, this vision and plan are still only on paper and will receive no commitment by ASEAN governments, which lack political will. Moreover, the trend of bilateral trade negotiation lessens the importance of ASEAN regional cooperation.
It is true that ASEAN tries to cement cooperation based on common benefits experienced by all ASEAN countries, as revealed in rules of unanimity and willingness. However, in actuality, it will hardly be possible to establish a regional community. The first cause for this failure is the difference among ASEAN members, in terms of the different states of development of each country in ASEAN, which would probably lead to an uneven distribution of benefits if such integration took place. The other cause is trading rivalries among ASEAN countries both for international trade and international capital outflows. EU countries, on the other hand, are natural trading partners.
Another barrier to establish AEC is the lack of a sense of common ownership among ASEAN people. Each country in ASEAN has a different history and culture. ASEAN countries have never been allied. Since the people of ASEAN are not sufficiently informed on the vision to establish AEC, they still perceive themselves as the citizens of individually separate countries, not as the citizens of an ASEAN community.
ASEAN lacks the enforcement of good rules. The nature of ASEAN adherence to law is casual, showing negligence to rules and dependence on interpersonal relationships rather than institutionalized laws. Therefore, ASEAN cooperation is a declaration, rather than a treaty in practice. Furthermore, ASEAN lacks operational rules and incentives so that member countries can follow through on every commitment made and on rules and procedures governing dispute settlements. However, these rules were primarily initiated after the economic crisis of 1997.
ASEAN put effort into creating activities for enhancing relationships between member countries, although most of its activities were for the elite. ASEAN societies are named elite societies. Summit meetings are not frequently held; but are held once a year compared to the summit meetings of EU which are held twice a year. Activities to enhance relationships at a people-to-people (P to P) level are seldom engaged in.
ASEAN lacks an efficient management system. The structure of the ASEAN secretariat is weak due to its limited authority, its committee roles, lack of human resources, budget and political support. Power elite groups in ASEAN do not willingly submit to the supra-national authority of ASEAN. The unanimity principle also leads to operational inflexibility in practice.
ASEAN lacks the mechanisms and procedures that initiate common learning. People in member countries understand their neighbours less than they know countries outside ASEAN due to the lacking channel of knowledge transference.
I may conclude that ASEAN would be far from successful in establishing AEC due to its lack of realization of the importance of power elites and efficient mechanisms to support cooperation, and also by the gap that exists between the people of ASEAN. Today, ASEANs vision focuses on the cooperation of power elites and in developing many structures and mechanisms. Thus, in my opinion, the most important issue is to build the foundation of success in establishing AEC, by strengthening relationships at a P to P level, creating a sense of ASEAN people-hood in the thinking of the region.