Jan 3, 2013

Brunei - Brunei to hasten Asean integration

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"Brunei's Asean chairmanship in 2013 will be very important in ensuring the Asean Community meets its 2015 deadline, and I am confident that Brunei is capable of taking the role as chair", said executive director of the Brunei's Centre for Strategic and Policy Studies Hj Ismail Hj Duraman.

The executive director, in an email interview with The Brunei Times, said Brunei, as the new Asean Chair could use its experience and leadership to resolve disputes and accelerate the Asean integration process.

Brunei has been a member of Asean for 28 years and has a great deal of experience. It has always presented itself as a neutral facilitator. In addition to that, Brunei has always been committed to the Asean spirit and the chairmanship is a powerful tool for the country to set the agenda in the 2013 summit.

He said issues that needed to be addressed included political, economic and socio-cultural security.

In addition, he said Asean would need to look into cooperation on defence and security, accelerating the Asean Economic Community blueprint in areas such as fostering sustainable economic growth and development, facilitating regional trade and investment, services' liberalisation and integration, regional connectivity, as well as food security, climate change, humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

"There will also be a focus towards socio-cultural progress in areas such as education and health, as well as promotion of Asean's cultural heritage. Cooperation and commitment by all Asean member countries towards its goals will be key, and this would also mean intensifying current efforts in both integration and implementation," he said.

Hj Ismail said these issues would have to be dealt with some urgency bearing in mind the Asean Community deadline of 2015.

He said he was confident Brunei would serve as a catalyst to achieving these goals, while promoting Asean's credibility and development.

Asked how Asean integration could pioneer cooperation and connectivity, Hj Ismail said Asean economies were diverse and culturally different, and that inter- and intra-state connectivity in terms of sea, air and land could prove challenging.

There is also the challenge of keeping people digitally connected. For example, enhancing connectivity in rural areas and between islands in an archipelago, he said.

"Asean has proven many times in the past that countries cooperate and stay connected in both good and bad times. Recent events in Thailand and the Philippines are testament to how Asean countries come together to help. If Asean cooperation and connectivity proceed as planned, Asean will be a formidable economic powerhouse. Today, if Asean were a single country, it would be the world's ninth largest economy and the world's third largest in terms of population, which is about 600 million people," he said.

Asean has also implemented many agreements and treaties to ensure its firm standing in the global arena. It has in place, strategies for all the areas mentioned political security, economic growth, social progress and cultural development.

"For example, in the area of political security, Asean has in place the APSC [Asean political security community], TAC [Treaty of Amity and Cooperation] in Southeast Asia and has successfully preserved Southeast Asia as a nuclear weapons-free zone and free from weapons of mass destruction," he said.

He added: "There are undoubtedly challenges and obstacles towards achieving Asean connectivity. Among these would be the availability of funding and investment in infrastructure development, rural development and closing the digital divide."

With its location at the heart of East Asia, Asean plays an important role in the process of regional integration. With their geographical proximity and long established economic [and historical] relations with other major East Asian countries, the Asean countries possess important factors to effectively drive East Asian integration.

East Asian integration will, therefore, achieve no major success without the strengthening of Asean integration, he said, adding that "in turn, Asean integration cannot succeed if the development gap in Asean, particularly between Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam (CLMV) and the more advanced Asean member countries, continues to widen."

Reducing the gap in development between the CLMV and other Asean member countries is critical to the success of East Asian integration. Having said that, it should be noted that development gaps always exist; however, not all gaps are impediments to integration, Hj Ismail said.

"There are two approaches to narrowing the development gap within Asean member countries. The first is on a more technical basis, which refers to the key 'gap indicators'. More specifically, this approach assumes that development gaps can be reflected in a number of aspects and disciplines, i.e multi-dimensional and inter-disciplinary. Alternatively, one may proceed to discuss the problem of reducing the development gap by thinking of the reforms to be undertaken by each newer member, the possible forms of intra-CLMV cooperation to be pursued, and the type of external assistance required," he said.

Hj Ismail pointed out that the CLMV countries were at significantly different stages of reform and international integration.

"Vietnam and Cambodia have progressed rapidly in terms of international economic integration, at least in terms of the number of international economic arrangements they participated in and their (relatively early) timing. Meanwhile, Laos and Myanmar have stayed rather closed. Thus, it is not easy to generalise about propositions and conclusions for reforms in each of the newer Asean members," he said.

Commenting on the Asean Spirit, Hj Ismail said Brunei, with its intrinsic assets as a neutral and stable country, politically, economically and socially, had and would continue to act as an effective mediator and facilitator in ensuring this reality.

"Enhancing awareness of Asean is an important undertaking that involves a continuing effort at knowledge-building and inculcating values and attitudes of regionalism among various stakeholders of the region, especially the youth. The aim is to enable Asean citizens to realise and appreciate common aspirations in the region and to inspire them to take part in the dynamics of building the Asean Community," he said.

Promoting Asean is a shared responsibility among all Asean member countries, Asean agencies and all other stakeholders involved in shaping the Asean community, he said.

Rasidah Hab

The Brunei Times

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