With just six months left before the end of 2015 and the scheduled implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community, it is clear that the member nations of ASEAN are far behind in planning what is supposed to be the integration of the region into a close-knit community featuring free movement of goods, services, skilled labor and freer flow of capital.
It is a significant step forward and could be a crucial turning point for ASEAN. But without a strong central authority and mandate, ASEAN integration will remain in a mess and the AEC remain an illusion. A single market across ASEAN nations requires a strong central authority that can harmonize and standardize regional regulations, and it must be recognized by all member countries.
ASEAN will need a guardian of competition. It will need to significantly improve the current trade competition policy and arbitration. The scheme itself requires a consensual agreement among members that should be implemented as a bundle. That is, governments should not be allowed to pick and choose among components or sectors.
ASEAN is dealing with a colossal and ambitious task but with limited resources and capacity.
But how limited are these resources? ASEAN has no intention to become a supranational organization like the European Union, where members coordinate within the context of intergovernmentalism. The internal dynamics of ASEAN institutions have been designed to uphold the roles of national governments and the norms of the association — known as the ASEAN Way.
The ASEAN Secretariat — the current central authority and only real institutional organ — remains at the margins of ASEAN policymaking. It does not possess the mandate or power to command individual member states, or the power to devise common policies on its own. It is a glorified secretary, responsible for only administrative support, sorting out the daily paper work and arranging meetings for the organization.
There is no guarantee that the central authority will implement policy effectively and ASEAN will be unlikely to enforce compliance from obstinate members. Interestingly, Barry Desker pointed out that during the preceding 40 years of ASEAN, only 30 percent of agreements were actually implemented.
ASEAN will need to increase funding if it is to strengthen the Secretariat. The current operational budget relies on equal contributions by the member states, reflecting the norms of equality and stemming from the belief that different contributions might lead to a hierarchy of powers. The payment has never been increased substantially and has been kept low enough to ensure the poorest members can pay. ASEAN also receives substantial funding from dialogue partners and external donors — mostly through specific projects or operations — but this is not sustainable in the long run if ASEAN wishes to present itself to the world as a non-aligned power.