The first milestone towards an integrated ASEAN Community is coming up by the end of this year. Despite the overall progress towards closer regional integration, there is much speculation on the challenges and prospects of ASEAN's community-building efforts.
This arises from the remaining obstacles for achieving a better connected region that brings its peoples closer together through more efficient procedures and practices.
The obstacles are mainly in the missing links within and across borders via road, rail, air and sea; more harmonised customs and immigration procedures to facilitate greater trade and tourism flows; and continuing mismatches in education and employment opportunities for young people in the region.
Three emerging trends highlight the importance of addressing these challenges. First, with greater exchanges and cheaper modes of travel, people-to-people, business-to-business and government-to-government links are stronger than in the past. This has quickened the pace of urbanisation in the region, leading to emergence of economic corridors and urban centres as potential important nodes along the supply chain.
Second, the economic imbalances between urban and rural areas are also leading to growing disparities, and more internal and cross-border migration flows. As a result, cities in South-east Asia are growing ever larger, with increasingly complex needs and demands on resources.
Third, it is becoming clearer that the pursuit of economic development requires an integrated approach with political and social stability, as jobs, energy and food security and environmental sustainability are all interlinked.
Better access to travel and communications has helped both maritime and mainland countries in South-east Asia to be more connected than in the past. Yet, the obvious gaps that still remain between and within some of the ASEAN member states have prompted ASEAN governments to prioritise connectivity as the main vehicle for regional integration.
ASEAN's connectivity efforts revolve around the implementation of the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) adopted in 2010.
The MPAC highlights three dimensions of being connected more closely - the physical infrastructure that will facilitate travel in and across countries; the institutional ease with which cross-border procedures can be completed; and the social and cultural connections that will be strengthened through this.