Asean’s secretariat must play an important role in this transition. Since its founding nearly 50 years ago, the organization has been a positive force in the region’s economic rise. The time has come for it to do much more—with extra powers and resources—to ensure the AEC delivers on its promise.
A new economic community based on harmonized rules and regulations demands a broader reach for Asean. New functional agencies located throughout the region would help address key AEC deliverables that lie beyond the capacity of its secretariat. An Asean Tourism Council based in the Mekong subregion, for example, could do much to promote this growing industry.
The stakes are high. By 2025, full implementation of the AEC could raise the region’s gross domestic product growth by 7.1% above the baseline forecast, creating millions of new jobs. Coupled with a shift in global manufacturing from China, this could generate between $280 billion and $615 billion for Asean economies by 2030.
There has been progress toward this goal. A host of new initiatives have streamlined customs procedures; eased cross-border labor flows for professions such as nurses, engineers and architects; boosted capital flows into stock exchanges; and forged better transport links. In the early 1990s it took six weeks to send goods overland from Bangkok to Kunming; now it takes two days. More than 70% of trade among Asean countries is now tariff-free.
But many of these wins were low-hanging fruit. What’s left will be harder to achieve.
Piecemeal reform across the AEC’s four pillars—fostering a single market and production base, competitiveness, equitable growth and global integration—has put the year-end deadline for full implementation out of reach. Progress has lagged on opening agriculture, steel and motor-vehicle markets, eliminating nontariff trade barriers and creating a single aviation market, to name just a few.
Many accords have been signed, but implementation is often lackluster. A single customs window—linking the region’s ports and overland crossings to speed clearance—is a great idea whose time has come. But though some of the more developed countries have formed national single windows, other members haven’t fully done so. The AEC will be only as strong as its weakest links. Asean needs to synchronize its newer members with its more established constituents.
Can it meet the challenge? Asean has a consensus-based style—the so-called “Asean Way”—that suits the region’s diversity but also gives members a pretext for slow action or noncompliance. This should change, as the real test of the AEC will come after the deadline, when national laws may have to be amended to implement it.
A well-resourced Asean secretariat could provide the political cover governments will need to make these tough decisions. This requires empowering the secretariat in terms of its role, funding and staffing.
A recent study put the secretariat’s headcount requirements at 1,620 people by 2030, or 5.5 times 2012 levels, and identified a need for a seven-fold funding increase through 2020. Its coffers would benefit if contributions were based on members’ ability to pay and their share of benefits from regional activities, rather than the current system of equal payments. To drive the new economic architecture, Asean should lead a lean and capable technocracy. Salaries, which lag behind peer organizations, should rise considerably to attract the best candidates.
The AEC is a massive opportunity for Southeast Asia to boost its economic and political security. A stronger Asean would help ensure it isn’t missed.
Mr. Groff is the Asian Development Bank’s vice president for East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific.