With only a year to go before a crucial integration goal for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), leaders of member countries will gather this weekend to deal with a heavy workload.

The 24th ASEAN Summit, which will be held in this new administrative capital of Myanmar, marks the first time the country hosts such a summit, 17 long-waited years after it first joined the bloc.

The country has set the theme for its chair as”Moving Forward in Unity to a Peaceful and Prosperous Community.”

Having relinquished its first chance to chair ASEAN in 2006 in an effort to maintain ASEAN solidarity against a backdrop of western pressure, Myanmar is clearly eager to use this opportunity to demonstrate its progress towards substantial economic and political reforms undertaken since 2011.

ASEAN has been focused on the ambitious goal of forming an Economic Community, which is supposed to be based on four tenets: a single market and production base; a highly competitive economic region; a region of equitable economic development and a region fully integrated into the global economy.

The concept, however, eschews the idea of a single currency but otherwise aims to be much like the European Union. With months ticking away to the 2015 deadline, ASEAN leaders will be scrambling to meet key political and economic goals at the summit.

In an exclusive interview with Xinhua on the eve of the summit, U Ye Htut, spokesman of the president of Myanmar, said preparations have been well made.

ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh also expressed optimism about Myanmar’s ability to chair the group. “ASEAN is committed to extending all necessary assistance and cooperation to ensure the accomplishment of Myanmar’s chairmanship,”he said.”Myanmar’s success is ASEAN’s success.”

U Ye Htut noted that while the upcoming summit will focus on what preparations for the ASEAN Community, the more important segment will likely be the post-2015 vision for the regional bloc.

ASEAN Economic Community will push through as planned, especially since 80 percent of required steps have been taken so far, according to a press release from the ASEAN Secretariat distributed Friday. Four months earlier, at the 23rd ASEAN Summit held in Brunei last October, the rate of the implementation of the integration plan was declared to be 79.7 percent.

Analysts say the road ahead remains bumpy, as the tasks accomplished are the easiest part. “We have made tremendous progress towards eliminating tariffs, which is the relatively easier task,”Dr. Jonathan Choi Koon Shum, chairman of the Sunwah Group and permanent honorary president of the Hong Kong-based Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, told Xinhua.”But boosting connectivity is much harder.”

According to statistics, more than 99 percent of goods traded in Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei are already at zero tariff, while Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam have been offering 0-5 percent duties on 98.6 percent of goods sourced within the region.

Connectivity, on the other hand, would continue to be a major headache for leaders as they gather at the conference table over the weekend.

The Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity, adopted at the 17th ASEAN Summit in 2010, envisions a well-connected ASEAN in physical, institutional and people-to-people elements.

A big part of the connectivity plan relies on the building of infrastructure across the area, linking goods, services and people closer together. Choi said countries agree that infrastructure should be strengthened, but remain mum when it comes to fund- raising. “Some parts of the region are more developed, thus allowing investors to profit. But no one want to invest in the less developed areas, where pay back is not guaranteed,” he said, adding that connectivity cannot be achieved with those areas left unattended.

As 2015 quickly approaches, leaders are also expected to ponder on a more concrete post-2015 plan.

Acknowledging that ASEAN integration was an ongoing task, leaders attending the last summit in Brunei discussed the mapping out of a post-2015 Vision for ASEAN and adopted the Bandar Seri Begawan Declaration on the ASEAN Community’s Post-2015 Vision, which tasks the ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) to develop ASEAN’ s post-2015 vision by the time of the 27th ASEAN Summit in 2015. “Geography has put ASEAN in a unique bridging position between the great Asian powers and it will continue to assert its centrality in the evolving regional architecture,” said Le Luong Minh, the ASEAN secretary-general. “The ASEAN Community will leverage this position to maintain peace and stability in the region which are requisite ingredients for narrowing the development gaps within and between ASEAN member states.”

Member countries are also likely to use the opportunity to call for further strengthening of external relations, including closer relations with China and the promotion of the wider Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

U Ye Htut disclosed that the summit may discuss in detail the China-ASEAN”2+7″ Cooperation Framework, proposed by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the last ASEAN Summit in October last year.

Comparing economic development of ASEAN and China to twin engines, he said “if the two engines operate well, East Asia would head for better development.”

The RCEP, which aims to establish a free trade area (FTA) among ASEAN and six of its partner countries, would also likely to be under spotlight.

If established, the FTA, which would include Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, will cover 50 percent of the world’s population and constitute 30 percent of global GDP and trade volume.

Officials originally hoped to conclude the talks by the end of 2015, but even the RCEP negotiation committee chief now admits negotiations are facing challenges.

Although the past sessions achieved concrete process,” challenges still lie ahead,” Iman Pambagyo, the ASEAN chairman of the RCEP negotiation committee, said last month.

But Dr. Choi remained generally optimistic.”It would not be easy, but the talks have a bright prospect,”he said. “It isn’t a process you can finish in a couple of years, but it is the big trend.”

Describing the RCEP as ASEAN’s “counterbalance” against the backdrop of the Asia-Pacific Cooperation and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he said, in essence, it is a reconstruction of the international order.

For ASEAN leaders, the stakes continue to be high as the world depends on Asia-Pacific economies to drive growth forward despite better than expected recovery.

Global recovery is becoming broader, but the changing external environment poses new challenges to emerging markets and developing economies, said the International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook.

The IMF forecasts global growth to average 3.6 percent in 2014, up from 3 percent in 2013, and further to 3.9 percent in 2015.

Risks identified previously include finishing the financial sector reform agenda, high debt levels in many countries, stubbornly high unemployment and concerns about emerging markets. In such a background, ASEAN leaders will take this weekend to underscore stronger policy efforts that are needed to fully restore confidence and ensure a durable and sustained global recovery.

Link: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/world/2014-05/10/c_133322770.htm?