Southeast Asia has languished as a global force because its leaders have refused to forge a common direction. Now that they have taken that momentous step by agreeing to draw up and implement a European Union-style charter for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the region has the possibility of marching forward economically, socially and politically. Asean is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, but despite the grouping being just a decade younger than the EU and having more people, it has little clout. The EU has evolved to become a powerful counterbalance to the US; Asean speaks with 10 different voices and, with the dramatic rise of China and India, is competitively overshadowed. As a result, Southeast Asians have been at a disadvantage despite having skills as good as or better than their Chinese and Indian counterparts. Their countries have been posting good growth rates, but China and India have performed far better. Figures for gross domestic product per capita tell the story - one by one, Asean's member nations are being overtaken by their giant neighbours. The living standards of Southeast Asia's people are stagnating, barely improving or, in some cases, worsening. Asean's leaders have been aware of the predicament and are in the process of forging economic ties with China and India. Without a stronger voice, though, Asean will be forced to play a junior role in such partnerships. The grouping's founding principles of consensus and non-intervention in the affairs of member states are largely to blame for the disadvantage. With diverse political systems - a military-ruled junta, autocracies, communist regimes and democracies - finding common ground on issues has been a perpetual problem. The result is that Asean has a reputation for being little more than a talk shop. This is not truly the case, of course: the organisation has in place many levels of co-operation to tackle a wide range of issues including health care, piracy, drug trafficking and people smuggling. Efforts to break down trade barriers and fight terrorism have been especially fruitful. The pact agreed yesterday in Cebu does not overcome all the challenges. Consensus will still be the method of agreement and what the final draft of the charter will look like when it is presented at the next summit of leaders in November is uncertain. What is clear, though, is that Asean has accepted that it needs to change and set in motion a process to make that happen. The drafting committee must now chart as strong a position as possible to create a united organisation capable of decisive co-operation at all levels. As difficult as this may seem, proof that Asean is willing to come together to take on the challenges it faces were in evidence yesterday with the signing of a declaration to combat regional terrorism. The measures will make it easier to track terrorists and bring them to justice. Such steps would seem late in coming after the Bali bombings, explosions at western targets in Jakarta, persistent attacks in the southern Philippines and southern Thailand and recent blasts in Bangkok. They do, however, represent a further tightening of measures already taken and a united show of resolve to improve Southeast Asia's security and stability. A desire to make the region financially stronger as soon as possible lay behind the declaration that economic integration be brought forward from 2020 to 2015; the charter decision taps the desire that Asean move beyond its founding principles towards becoming the global force that will help its people progress and prosper. Asean has let opportunities slip by because its members lacked a cohesive outlook. Now that the decision has been made to reshape the group, they have to set aside differences and work as closely as possible to surmount challenges.