Southeast Asia’s ambitious plans to boost region-wide economic integration – and consolidate its position as a key transport, communication and tourism hub – hinge largely on forging stronger transport, regulatory and people-to-people links among the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) .

The Master Plan on Connectivity adopted by ASEAN leaders in October 2010 is the region’s response to the challenge. With its focus on three dimensions – physical, institutional and people-to-people – the Master Plan underlines that while hard infrastructure is important, an enabling regulatory framework and a shared identity also play a crucial role in better connecting ASEAN countries with each other and with the rest of the world.

The Master Plan is certainly impressive. The priority now is to turn it into reality.

Certainly governments across the region are convinced of the economic, political and social importance of the initiative. As such, as the drive to establish an ASEAN Economic Community by end-2015 picks up speed, with countries working to achieve intra-regional free movement of goods, services, investment, and skilled labour, as well as a freer flow of capital, ASEAN’s connectivity agenda is a top priority.

Implementing the Master Plan requires money, technical assistance and region-wide as well as global partnerships. Not surprisingly, connectivity is the buzzword in ASEAN’s recent dealings with key partners including China, Japan and the United States.

The first ASEAN-EU Dialogue on Connectivity being held in Brussels this week makes the European Union an essential part of this important conversation. It also gives a further boost to already-expanding ASEAN-EU relations.

With a population of approximately 600 million, a combined GDP of over $2 trillion, and still-impressive growth rates, ASEAN attracts global attention. The EU and ASEAN are major trading partners with over €200 billion of bilateral trade in goods and services. Recent years have seen a significant upgrading of relations between the two sides, with the adoption in 2012 of the Bandar Seri Begawan Plan of Action and the EU’s accession to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation – a non-aggression and cooperation pact between ASEAN members and their partners – paving the way for a broader and deeper relationship.

Exchanging experience

The EU-ASEAN Dialogue on Connectivity offers the two regional actors an important platform to exchange experiences and best practices. The EU’s vast experience in establishing a single market, building transport networks and connecting member states and regions is unique – and of great value to ASEAN. The Dialogue also offers opportunities for discussions on public and private financing for the Master Plan projects.

The Dialogue on Connectivity follows the 21st meeting of the ASEAN-EU Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) held in January in Jakarta and the successful EU-ASEAN Aviation Summit in February in Singapore. An ASEAN-EU High Level Dialogue on Maritime Cooperation was also held in November 2013. The results of these encounters will feed into the ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting later this year.

The EU is already working closely with ASEAN to spur connectivity through border management and higher education. The ASEAN-EU Border Management Project aims at improving cross-border facilitation and management to ease the movement of goods and people. An EU Support to Higher Education in ASEAN Region (EU SHARE) programme supports ASEAN institutions to develop regional higher education frameworks and aims to increase student mobility within ASEAN as well as to the EU. More than 4000 ASEAN students travel to Europe each year on EU scholarships.

The ASEAN Regional Integration Support from the EU (ARISE) project, meanwhile, helps ASEAN’s economic integration drive while more generally, also helping to strengthen the operational capacity of the ASEAN Secretariat. Significant progress has also been made in the area of Information and communications technology (ICT).

The week-long visit to Brussels will provide the ASEAN delegation with insight into many of the EU’s connectivity initiatives, with visits also planned to the Antwerp Port and the European Investment Bank. Meetings are also scheduled with European business representatives whose interest in ASEAN connectivity is on the rise.

Public-Private Partnerships

ASEAN’s focus on the role of public-private partnerships in implementing the Master Plan is strong, with the organisation’s Secretary General, Le Luong Minh, recently underlining the need to increase private sector investment in the region to address the massive financing requirements for ASEAN Connectivity projects.

Through public-private partnerships, governments would be able to work with the private sector to close funding gaps and tap expertise to develop sustainable and high-quality infrastructure. As such, said Minh, more efforts are needed “to create a favourable environment for PPPs, which in turn, will support our ASEAN Connectivity agenda.”

ASEAN’s many partners, including the EU are clearly banking on – and backing – sustained growth and development across the region. As Cesar V. Purisima, Finance Secretary of the Philippines, said in a recent speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore, “ASEAN is in the right place of the world for the next 30 to 50 years…If looked at as a single country, ASEAN will be among the top ten economies in terms of population, and probably among the youngest.”

ASEAN cannot be faulted for its ambitious integration agenda and for making connectivity a top priority in its drive to set up an economic community. The way ahead will be challenging, however, as the region seeks to boost intra-regional trade, build modern and efficient infrastructure, harmonise different regulations and create bonds between its citizens.

The participation of the private sector in meeting these and other goals will be crucial. As such, ASEAN must make it easier for businesses – national and foreign – to operate in the region. As Purisima pointed out, “Businesses will boom if ASEAN integrates successfully but this is not possible without their participation… That is the challenge for the private sector, to become a catalyst for integration itself.” The message is likely to be reiterated in Brussels.

ASEAN members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.