ASEAN at a Crossroads: Rethinking the ASEAN Community

JAKARTA – ASEAN is slowly recovering from what is believed to be the most severe stage of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, but the region remains at a critical time.

Emerging shocks are challenging the region, including a global economic slowdown, rising food and energy prices, climate disasters, and ongoing global trade tensions. However, similar to coping with a pandemic, the same resilience can help counter the potentially far-reaching damage from such a global shock.

The region’s policy space, built on years of successfully navigating past economic crises, shows that both monetary and fiscal policies are designed to protect the poor and mitigate the impact on the economy. ensure that we remain responsive and flexible to deal with spillovers, including the implementation of stronger policies for Sectors affected by the shock.

Indeed, ASEAN’s strong commitment to regional cooperation and integration will help the region weather these headwinds and uncertainties. It also makes the ASEAN community resilient and strong despite possibilities and challenges.

The region’s solid performance over the past five years is proof of this.

Progress has been made in implementing the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework as an exit strategy from the pandemic. ASEAN’s projected growth rate of 5.3% in 2022 is well above the global average growth rate of 3.2%. Building on this momentum towards a comprehensive and sustainable post-pandemic recovery is critical now.

Efforts to bring into force the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement and to substantively conclude negotiations to upgrade the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA). New negotiations with China, India, Canada and others are a stark reminder that ASEAN must adhere to a rules-based multilateral trading system if the region’s economic dynamism is to be maintained. .

Efforts to rebuild better and ensure the contribution of regional integration for the people of ASEAN are making steady progress. ASEAN member states have successfully reopened schools and new guidelines are now in place to keep schools open for safe in-person education during long-term health crises and emergencies.

Various programs and initiatives are available to empower youth, women and other vulnerable groups, including the ASEAN Regional Plan of Action (WPS) on Women, Peace and Security adopted at the recent ASEAN Summit in November. has been implemented. A case in point is her ASEAN Junior Fellowship Program with her ASEAN Secretariat (AJFP) initiated by the State of Brunei Darussalam to leverage the potential contribution of her young ASEAN diplomats in community-building efforts. doing.

Mechanisms are also in place to deal with future health emergencies, such as the ASEAN Center on Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases and the ASEAN Regional Reserve on Medical Public Health Emergencies.

On the other hand, ASEAN’s commitment to peace and stability in the region remains unwavering as geopolitical tensions rise around the world. This is because ASEAN has expanded its list of partners over the past five years by adding one dialogue partner (UK), two sectoral dialogue partners (Brazil and the United Arab Emirates) and three sectoral dialogue partners. underscored by the expansion of its foreign relations. Development partners (Chile, France, Italy).

Additionally, since 2018, 15 new parties have joined the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), including Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Oman, Qatar, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.

Issues that challenge regional security, such as combating radicalization and violent extremism, combating transnational crime, and making ASEAN as politically relevant as possible, should therefore be addressed. openness and engagement remain important. In these uncertain times, the need for political debate is vital. Thus, Timor-Leste’s decision not only tests the maturity of ASEAN as a security community, but also shows that ASEAN centrality and her ASEAN community are working in practice.

However, despite the achievements of the past five years, the ASEAN community remains at a crossroads. This is due to global and regional headwinds affecting the future of the ASEAN community, including issues such as global trade frictions, climate change, digital divide and even pandemics. Taken together, these challenges have revealed gaps or weaknesses in ASEAN’s ability to address several goals such as participation in global value chains, strengthening macro-financial coordination, and narrowing the development gap.

Given the many changes that have affected the foundations of the ASEAN Community, the post-2025 ASEAN agenda calls for a different approach to regional integration: more dynamic, initiating new initiatives and implementing measures in response to change. A viable approach should be adopted. Market and economic conditions. Simply put, ASEAN’s post-2025 agenda is to rethink the ASEAN Community by identifying and implementing the right instruments of regional cooperation and integration that can better position the ASEAN economy for the future.

Pursuing digital transformation, for example, is clearly essential to a resilient future. Current efforts to accelerate the region’s transition to a digital and knowledge economy, including the Bandar Seri Begawan Roadmap on the ASEAN Digital Transformation Agenda and the development of an ASEAN Digital Economy Framework that can promote ASEAN productivity and prosperity in the coming years. is important. But we need more.

We need to invest in infrastructure, education, cybersecurity, safety nets and reforms to facilitate access to technology. More importantly, a new way of thinking is needed to ensure that everyone in ASEAN, from governments to individuals and businesses, is fully and holistically embracing digital transformation and ready for the digital age. That’s it.

Sustainability is another big challenge for ASEAN, complicating issues in the region, from climate change to food insecurity to natural disasters to disruptions to supply chains and critical infrastructure. For ASEAN, developing a comprehensive framework for sustainable development – ​​an integrated and multi-sectoral approach that addresses sustainability and circularity issues in ASEAN across all dimensions and community pillars – is essential. , is timely. Transitioning to green and achieving carbon neutrality can be costly, but any further delay could incur greater costs and detriment to the well-being of ASEAN and its people. The lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic are still clear. Unsustainable growth can be very dangerous and disruptive.

ASEAN’s road ahead could be just as tough, if not tougher, if it makes the right choices, but the region can overcome the worst. So what should ASEAN do?

First, ASEAN must remain relevant, dynamic and flexible. This means having strong institutions, processes and mechanisms to maintain ASEAN’s relevance as an important regional player. Striving for a strengthened and well-resourced ASEAN Secretariat is the right move forward, and now is the time to do it.

Second, if ASEAN is to become the world’s fifth largest economy by 2030 as projected, the ASEAN community must function. The opportunities are tremendous. Unfortunately, ASEAN’s path towards an integrated community is narrow and there is no room for failure. It is therefore important to develop a comprehensive post-2025 agenda for the ASEAN community and coordinated strategies among her three pillars of the community. The Post-2025 Agenda should be seen not only as a continuation of past integration efforts, but as an opportunity to rethink ASEAN as a truly integrated community.

Finally, ASEAN must ensure that the well-being of its people has been at the center of everything since its establishment. ASEAN has always adapted to the changing world. Therefore, closing the development gap should not only be an initiative, but an integral part of ASEAN’s thinking and strategy, embedded in each country’s political, economic and social system.

Given what the ASEAN Community has achieved in the last five years, the coming years will see an ASEAN Community emerge that is more resilient, more integrated and better prepared to deal with shocks and uncertainties. But to achieve that, ASEAN must continue to transform and rethink itself.

Dato Lim Jock Hoi is the Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN at a Crossroads: Rethinking the ASEAN Community

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