By Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria ,The Star/Asia News Network
In early 2006, ASEAN senior economic officials were given this challenge by their ministers: craft the economic future of the grouping; an economic community not by 2020, as stipulated in ASEAN Vision 2020, but in 2015. Thus began the work toward an economically integrated ASEAN. Translation: the free movement of goods and services; and freer movement of capital and talents among the ten member states. In 2006, when the proposal to push for the realization of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 was mooted, it made economic sense. We had just come out of a major economic crisis, and initiatives toward the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) were well on the way. We were looking forward to the next steps toward deeper economic integration. So we drew up the AEC Blueprint as the guiding framework, and the AEC Scorecard to ensure that we did what we said we were going to do. And in all fairness, we have worked tirelessly to ensure that implementation was on track. But as 2015 dawns on us, we are confronted with questions about the very essence of the AEC. Economic pressures brought on by global economic uncertainties are putting a strain on efforts toward regional economic integration. Member states appear to be buckling under the pressures of protectionism. But short-term relief will not augur well for the long-term benefits of the region. Then there are the skeptics and naysayers. Given the range in economic development, diverse political and economic systems and cultural differences, can ASEAN be molded into a community? More disturbing are questions such as, ��Are we ready?�� and ��Are our SMEs ready?�� or fear-mongering questions such as ��Will we see an influx of labor in our shores come 2015?�� Rodolfo Severino Jr., the former ASEAN secretary-general, is quoted as saying, ��The main challenge is this first, the lack of awareness of the benefits, particularly of the benefits of regional integration.�� Our critics have been relentless. OK, perhaps this reflects our failure to communicate our achievements, our plans. Note to self: step up public engagement! So what have we to show for ASEAN economic integration? The ASEAN Free Trade Agreement is in full implementation, and has been in full implementation since Jan. 1, 2010. Member states are on track with the liberalization of the services sectors. Our investment agreement is in place. We now have an agreement to facilitate the freer movement of skills among member states. To be sure, ASEAN was pragmatic in its approach to economic integration. Right at the outset, it was clear that the grouping was not looking to be a Customs union.