What is called the Asean Community is actually not one. Not in the strict sense of the term “community”. Not at the end of 2015, or even in the foreseeable future.
Asean will remain an association of states, an inter-governmental one, with no surrender of power by the states to any supranational authority, not even in the slightest area of sovereign state right.
In law, it would be no different from the African Union or the Organisation of American States or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
What distinguishes Asean from these other regional organisations is the level of commitment towards achieving a community, which is far and away well ahead of any other regional grouping in the world, except for the EU. That commitment, however, is not consistent and not even among the member states.
What further distinguishes it is the amount of planning - an infrastructure of activity - that goes on towards achieving that community. Those three pillars: political-security, economic and socio-cultural. All those blueprints. Many, many meetings. A lot of speeches, communiques and press releases.
Even so, the commitment and planning do not a community make at the end of it as long as state sovereignty reigns supreme in the association of southeast asian nations.
At most there is clear aspiration to establish the Asean Community, something the region’s leaders are now busy espousing as we approach the bewitching end of 2015.
That it will be a milestone in a long journey, but we are on the right path, have made measurable progress, and so on.
There is a confusion of cooperation, of a community-building process, or processes, with actual community. Having used the term loosely, here we are: expectant, but with no birth.
Having used too the term so extensively and for so long (at least since the Bali Concord II in 2003) however, we will get our knickers in a further twist if we were now to abandon it. But the purists on the meaning of community will dispute it is the Asean Community we are talking about.
(Of course, we also talk about the global community when there is no world government but at least - unlike Asean - there are for instance a surrender of power to the Security Council in the United Nations system and mechanisms of dispute settlement such as through the International Court of Justice to which many states have acceded.
The ineffectiveness of much of this is something else - we are here talking about some legal and structural commitments against which state behaviour can be measured).
Coming back to Asean, we will have to start talking about aspiration and progress to establish the Asean Community a bit more, and the Asean Community having been established at the end of 2015 a little less.
Indeed we are now talking more and more about numerical progress in attaining the pillars of a community (indefinite article “a” and lower case “c”). This is well and good as long as the missing quality of community is understood.
Hence we have scorecards.
How much has been achieved against many miles of plans of action in the three blueprints.
But even in the more numerically measurable economic pillar there is no escape from quality. (How the political-security pillar measures attainment of human rights in Asean or the association’s contribution to regional peace and security I do not know; just as I will not pretend to understand how the socio-cultural pillar measures protection of worker’s or women’s rights in the region)
Let’s do instead the economic pillar. First of all, there is no doubt we will fall short of blueprint targets.
But there will be a surge to achieve nearly 100%, by official count.
However, even as efforts are made to reap the “low-hanging fruits”, to stock-take and to prioritise action to remove non-tariff measures in doable sectors, it would not be advisable at the end of it to announce so many per cent of the community blueprint has been achieved, without caveat.
The private sector will contest it.
This quantitative fixation obscures qualitative reality. It will only underline how economical Asean member states are with the truth. Many have claimed they have done this and that when in fact they have not enabled them and sometimes do indeed obstruct them.
Name and shame could cause discomfort and dissension among them. All the ensuing finger-pointing will expose further how far we are from establishing the Asean community.
As already noted, the problem with the economic, and the other community pillars, is that the term “community”, on the one hand is used rather loosely, and on the other its measure of attainment is defined by numeric fiat coming from member states to compliant secretariat.
If numbers have still to be used, link them to a programme of action, or a blueprint if we must - but delink them from reference to achievement of a community.
Even if those numbers will be challenged by the private sector, at least this contestation will not be confused by intrusion in the argument what a community might promise and must entail.
So, even after we get past a milestone, we must not forget about the still long road ahead towards achieving an Asean community.
The second main thing to remember is that ambitious plans cannot be an official construct without involvement of stakeholders in the Asean society of states.
It is strange, is it not, that only now - in the final lap - are we talking about “Our People, Our Community, Our Vision.”
The people must be at the centre and remain there in the next phase.
The post-2015 plan must ensure this.
And it must correct many, many mistakes in the blueprints, like not emphasizing sufficiently sustainable development in the economic pillar, or worker’s rights and the role of women and the young there.
There must be heavy and involved consultation with all sectors of Asean society, something only latterly realised in the present plans ending this year.
This has not yet happened as the post-2015 plan is being formed.
That plan should not proceed in linear fashion on the trajectory shaped in the past by officials almost in splendid isolation.
There are huge changes taking place out there.
What is the world going to look like in 2025 or 2030 or 2050? How is this being taken on board?