The ASEAN Community, which is set to become a reality by year's end, will mark a milestone in the process of Asian integration.[Special coverage]
The community's formation, which is expected to effectively optimize regional economic growth, will also bring huge opportunities for the framework of the ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea cooperation mechanism ("10+3") to further promote regional integration by boosting practical cooperation.
HUGE OPPORTUNITIES FOR REGIONAL ECONOMY, INTEGRATION
The ASEAN Community, which is the first sub-regional community in Asia, will officially take shape on Dec. 31 this year.
Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN Xu Bu said in a recent interview with Xinhua that the establishment of the ASEAN Community will be a milestone in the history of ASEAN's development.
"As one of the world's youngest and most dynamic economies, the ASEAN Community will provide a bigger and freer market, as well as create a favorable investment environment for China," Xu said.
The launch of the community, which topped the agenda of the ASEAN summits being held in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, entails closer integration through the three pillars of political security, economy and socio-culture.
Analysts said it represents a giant step towards Asia's integration as it will eventually kick the region's economy into a higher gear and transform the path on which regional peoples connect, share interests and develop.
Lee Chian Siong, senior adviser to chairman of the China-ASEAN Business Association, said the realization of the ASEAN Community will bring various opportunities for both the countries and foreign investors, while helping enterprises expand foreign markets.
"As for ASEAN members like Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, their manufacturing industry can enter into the whole ASEAN market, which means more opportunities," Lee said.
Comprised primarily of the existing bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements among ASEAN members, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is the first step towards an eventual ASEAN Community.
The 10-nation bloc with a GDP of 2.7 trillion U.S. dollars is expecting the AEC to create a single market with a free flow of goods, services and investments within the regional grouping.
With a total population of more than 600 million, the potential AEC market would eclipse both the EU and North America.
"The opportunities associated with AEC are wide-ranging," said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Singapore Nanyang Technological University, during a recent interview with Xinhua.
"The removal or reduction of tariffs among ASEAN countries over goods will almost certainly improve trade among ASEAN members, at a time when internal ASEAN trade is only one-third of external ASEAN trade volume," he said.
He added that a single ASEAN market and production base will also become an even more attractive foreign direct investment destination, and help better integrate the ASEAN economy into the global economy.
Chheang Vannarith, chairman of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, said the community will boost the 10-nation bloc's influence and prestige on the global stage.
"ASEAN will play a more critical role in maintaining regional peace and stability, and promoting regional community in East Asia," said Vannarith. "It will have more diplomatic leverage on the international stage."
He added that ASEAN member states will benefit from the realization of the community at different levels.
CHALLENGES LYING AHEAD
While seeing the enormous opportunities offered by the ASEAN Community, officials and analysts don't underestimate the challenges lying ahead.
For ASEAN, there is still a long way to go to complete the building of the ASEAN community, Xu said.
"The community building is always an ongoing process and Dec. 31 of 2015 is definitely not an end but a starting point," the ambassador said, adding China is willing to play a constructive role and work with ASEAN to push for the complete realization of the ASEAN Community.
Some experts expressed worries that the AEC may face challenges as economic and social development varies among ASEAN members.
"Some ASEAN members thought integration may harm the interest of their small- and medium-sized enterprises. For instance, Cambodia worried that its enterprises may suffer when competing with companies from other countries a few years ago. But nowadays, the momentum of regional economic development is quite satisfying," said Lee.
Lee said frequent communication and interaction will help to overcome difficulties, and ASEAN members can learn from each other.
The experts also noted that China's "Belt and Road" Initiative will inject new momentum into ASEAN's development, as the initiative emphasizes interconnectivity. Besides, China is a huge market for ASEAN members, which will have more options as China's market widens.
Agreeing with Lee, Vo Dai Luoc, former director of Vietnam's Institute of World Economics and Politics, said that in order to narrow development gaps among ASEAN members, they should strengthen integration for development as well as cooperation with international organizations and the block's non-member countries and partners, including China.
The two experts' opinions on China's positive role in promoting the bloc's integration and helping it address challenges were echoed by many, who believed the economic growth of many countries in the region has been hindered by inadequate infrastructure, but China's initiatives, including the Belt and Road, come as an important solution to the bottleneck.
"The Belt and Road Initiative proposed by China could make a unique contribution to the building of the ASEAN Community," Oh said.
The community can work well with China's initiative, as the two complement each other in enhancing regional and world prosperity and harmony, the expert added.
Political analysts also urged the "10+3" mechanism to further stimulate its internal driving force by seizing the historical opportunities brought by the ASEAN Community.
As the main driving force for regional economic integration, the "10+3" mechanism has yielded fruitful results during the past years.
In the opinion of the analysts, it is especially important for the mechanism to take the ASEAN Community's formation as an opportunity to continue its constructive role in promoting regional growth and integration, now at a time when the regional economy is facing mounting downward pressure, rising global financial risks and increasing non-traditional security threats such as natural disasters, climate change and terrorism,
According to Xu, China has made ASEAN a priority in implementing its Belt and Road Initiative, which is set to promote trade and infrastructure construction in the region.