Southeast Asian nations have created a unified economic community that aims to rival the European Union and North America.
The 10 Asean leaders signed a declaration in Kuala Lumpur to set up the Asean Economic Community (AEC) to span 625 million people with a GDP of around US$2.6 trillion.
It aims to allow free movement of goods, services and skilled labour as part of an EU-style integration plan, without a common currency.
The AEC caps the 48-year history of a bloc founded during the Cold War as an anti-communist bulwark with five members.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak hailed the AEC as a “landmark achievement” to compete with China and India, urging Asean members to accelerate integration.
Tariff barriers and visa restrictions are already being lifted across the bloc.
“We now have to ensure that we create a truly single market and production base, with freer movement of goods and services,” said Najib after signing the declaration.
“It is a day that we have all been waiting for. It is a day that we – Asean – can be proud of.”
He predicted the combined GDP of the 10 economies would reach US$4.7 trillion by 2020, making the bloc the fourth-largest economy by 2030.
Political differences include communist rule in Laos and Vietnam, a military junta in Thailand, an authoritarian regime in Cambodia, a quasi-civilian system in Myanmar and a monarchy in Brunei.
There are also language barriers, religious differences and border disputes between Cambodia and Vietnam.
“Time will tell if today’s signing ceremony is just more style over substance,” said Curtis Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank.
The 27th Asean Summit saw the adoption of a convention against trafficking, a joint statement on climate change, declarations on aging and higher education and regional plans of action on eliminating violence against women and children. At the end of the meeting, Najib handed over the rotating chairmanship of Asean to Laos’ Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong.
As usual, the summit also saw several related events occur between Asean and its external partners, including China, the USA, India and Australia.