ASEAN leaders seek closer integration amid South China Sea disputes

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KUALA LUMPUR:  Leaders from 10 Southeast Asian countries began a meeting on Saturday to chart the next phase of their ambitious attempts to forge a single community while contending with the thorny issue of the South China Sea territorial disputes.

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Malaysia, which holds the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is hosting the second and last ASEAN summit of the year. The first summit of the 10 ASEAN leaders was held in April.

During the meeting the leaders will formally declare the establishment of the ASEAN Community 2015, which entails closer integration through three pillars: political security, economic and socio-cultural, based on the 2009-2015 roadmap that laid out actions for members to undertake.

They will also adopt a blueprint for the next 10 years in a document entitled “Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together.”

The concept of an ASEAN Community may appear unclear to some, and this is bedeviling officials — how to raise awareness — but for Shahrul Ikram, the head of the ASEAN desk in Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry, as far as the political security pillar is concerned, the success lies in the fact that the region has been free from any major conflict since the 1960s.

During that period, the Cold War tainted Southeast Asia, resulting in bloody conflicts in Indochina and a deadly skirmish also erupted between Indonesia and Malaysia over a territorial dispute in the Borneo, among others.

“People are not aware and take it for granted,” Shahrul told Kyodo News, “(But) it is the most stable region in the world today.”

Under the economic community blueprint, the grouping, having a combined population of more than 625 million people, envisions an integrated market and production base with free flow of goods, services, investments, skilled labor and capital.

It aims to boost the combined gross domestic product of the grouping to USD4.7 trillion by 2020. The total ASEAN GDP is currently estimated at US $2.7 trillion.

The deputy secretary general of ASEAN in charge of the ASEAN Economic Community, Lim Hong Hing, noted one of the biggest challenges is to bridge the great economic divide among ASEAN members.

He said Friday at a business forum, held on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, that compared to the European Union, where the development gap between Germany and Croatia is 1:15 based on GDP per capita, the ratio between Singapore, the richest ASEAN member and Laos, the poorest, is 1:61.

Malaysian International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamad said there is no holding back the push for greater integration. ASEAN should strive to break down barriers or it will be left behind.

“There is a need for courage and political will. Sometimes we chicken out for whatever reason. It is important for us to push forward, to run faster,” he said at the same business forum.

The ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint 2025 will contain measures to boost living conditions, such as tackling poverty, environmental issues, labor, disaster management and education.

As in past ASEAN summits, the escalating tension in the South China Sea will likely steal the limelight in the meeting.

No resolution is in sight for the moment as ASEAN remains divided on how to deal with China, a major trading partner, which has conducted massive land reclamation works on some reefs in the contested waters.

A draft of the Chairman’s Statement dated Oct. 26, and seen by Kyodo News, merely echoes previous ASEAN statements by calling for a peaceful resolution, for all parties to exercise restraint and for the speedy implementation of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

The ASEAN leaders will later hold their annual talks, separately and jointly, with their dialogue partners: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States. The joint summit of 18 leaders, known as the East Asia Summit, will take place on Sunday.

US President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang flew into Kuala Lumpur on Friday to attend the meetings and set the stage for another round of talks between the two superpowers as they jostle for influence in the region.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. PNA/Kyodo

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