At the end of this year, or 48 years after its establishment in Bangkok, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) will officially transform itself into a full-fledged trading block called the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). However, many people in the region, including Indonesians, lack knowledge and information about the community, or do not care about the impacts the economic union will have on their daily lives.
It is true that the regional grouping is still far from being an ideal single market, but the member nations are on the right path to that goal, no matter how long it will take for them to eventually reach their final destination.
It is indeed an achievement because from time to time the group has had to confront questions from its own members and outside powers on the relevance of ASEAN for the people. It is frequently described as an organization that was often preoccupied with producing documents and other paperwork, rather than with providing concrete benefits to the population.
Forty-eight years ago on Aug. 8, 1967, five South East Asian nations ' Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand ' founded ASEAN in a joint attempt to counter spreading communist threats in the context of the Cold War era. Later on, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia joined the club.
When the regional grouping celebrates its 48th anniversary on Saturday it could mark the fact that the whole region, except Timor Leste, has become part of ASEAN. The former colony of Indonesia is reluctant to join the group because of administrative, economic and human resources problems.
Apart from economic problems, ASEAN also has to tackle regional security issues, especially a long-standing dispute with economic superpower China, which claims most of the South China Sea. Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines also have overlapping sovereignty claims on the mineral-rich ocean territory. Many worry the situation will deteriorate and drag major powers like the US to step in because they have interests in the waters.
As ASEAN matures, Indonesia as the largest member, in terms of economic scale and territory, is expected to continue its leadership role in line with the ASEAN principle of primus inter pares (first among equals).
In fact, one of the key factors behind ASEAN's steady growth is the readiness of Indonesia to promote equal rights and obligations among the group members. Some regional organizations have failed to progress because larger members often acted as 'big bosses' over smaller members.
There are very strong indications that President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo will focus heavily on his 'inner-looking' agendas as he has little interest in foreign policy issues, unlike his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But as the President, Jokowi needs to remember that ASEAN will remain one of the most important parts of Indonesia's geopolitical strategy.
Indonesia is not fully prepared or is unwilling to prepare itself for the AEC and such an attitude will greatly impact the effectiveness of economic integrity. In the end it will be Indonesia itself that has to pay the price for its reluctance to accept realty.