Malaysia, as new ASEAN chair, has a lot on its plate, including helping the 10-nation grouping achieve integration this year as a single market of 625 million people, to be known as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, speaking ahead of the foreign ministers' meeting starting today, laid out goals - including "regional stability and predictability of behaviour" - under its tenure.
Datuk Seri Anifah also said his country would push for moderation as a means to promoting regional peace and security.
Still, the new chair's diplomatic muscle faces stern tests in the months ahead, because aside from the AEC, a comprehensive Code of Conduct (COC) with China to manage territorial disputes in the South China Sea remains elusive.
Critics say ASEAN's ability to shape regional policy has been hindered by the lack of clout given to organs such as its secretariat, a situation that has raised questions over the grouping's willingness to put common interests ahead of domestic concerns.
Despite trumpeting the completion of about 85 per cent of the measures under the AEC blueprint, some key initiatives have stalled, such as the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity.
Indonesia's refusal to liberalise its aviation industry also means an "open sky" over ASEAN remains up in the air.
Said Mr Benny Hutabarat, director of the ASEAN Consulting Group: "Should there be no sanction mechanism or powerful regional institutions for both non-cooperation and non-compliance, member states will respond only to peer pressure to carry out community obligations."
This lack of institutional strength has implications beyond the AEC and is largely why the idea of negotiating South China Sea claims as a single voice with China has failed to crystallise into an actionable plan.
Some analysts do not see the situation changing under Malaysia's stewardship.
Mr Anifah glossed over the contentious maritime row - in which, besides Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, Malaysia also has overlapping claims - and did not list it as one of the ASEAN chair's top priorities for the year.
Deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Ooi Kee Beng said Malaysia will want to "move carefully" as it is a "no-win issue" while it leads ASEAN.
"It will therefore not wish to bring this up within ASEAN unless forced to," he added.
This article was first published on Jan 27, 2015.
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