ASEAN Summit

[OPINION] A different ASEAN Summit

Simone Galimberti
[OPINION] A different ASEAN Summit
'How much do the citizens of Southeast Asia care about ASEAN?'

The next two weeks are going to be crucial for the future of the citizens of Southeast Asia, as the 37th ASEAN Summit is going to be held under the chairmanship of Vietnam. 

The discussions will be focused on a common recovery framework aimed at re-launching the economies of the member nations of the regional bloc, and finding new joint ideas to face the challenges posed by COVID-19. 

Given the heavy toll imposed by the pandemic on millions of citizens in the community, especially those that were already vulnerable even before its spread, the heads of government of the ASEAN nations have gigantic responsibilities ahead. 

On the one hand, they must come up with quick and high-impact actions that meet the urgency of the time we are living in, while on the other hand, they will have to think longer-term, planning the next steps ahead to implement the ASEAN Vision 2025. 

Short-term considerations addressing the ongoing multiple crises, from the public health to the social and economic ones, while indispensable, need also to take into account the aspirations of the people to make it more cohesive, effective, and closer to the ASEAN. 

Moreover, the two approaches must go together: without relief for the current pain and suffering experienced by an increasingly high number of citizens in the region, the same ideals of a creating a true community of nations and citizens will dissolve.

Only an ambitious process of “big thinking” can actually create the right mechanisms to shift gears in the process of regional integration. 

It’s perhaps time to set some benchmarks and compare the achievements of ASEAN with other like-minded regional blocks. 

If we compare it with the South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation, SAARC, then the leaders as well as the citizens of Southeast Asia can be truly satisfied with what they’ve achieved so far. 

The level of cooperation among the ASEAN nations is unprecedented, vast, and comprehensive, with plans of creating complementary issues-based “communities” covering areas spanning from security and defense, to economy, to culture and education.

Yet the potential of the region requires a more ambitious set of yardsticks. 

Comparisons with the European Union will be unfair and perhaps even unproductive given the different histories and circumstances behind the two blocs, but what about drawing appraisals against other regional integration processes?

Is the regional cooperation in Southeast Asia doing that well in relation, for example, to the Economic Community of West African States or ECOWAS? 

What about benchmarking ASEAN with the Southern African Development Community or SADC? 

Considering the impressive modernization steps achieved in Southeast Asia, are the structures of integration in the region so solid and vibrant and ready to jumpstart a new era, in relation to peer institutions that enjoyed much less economic growth in the last decades and with some of them still reeling from the legacies of devastating conflicts?

As I said, looking at the European Union would not give justice to the incredible achievements of ASEAN in the last decades, but perhaps better observing the developments in Europe in the aftermath of the first outbreak of the pandemic can be useful and inspiring at the same time.

The EU Green Deal for example is a not just a new initiative but it is going to be the strategic framework over which the entire “reconstruction” of the member states hit by the pandemic will be founded on. 

Announced even before COVID-19 by the new European Commission, now the entire process of “building back better” will be focused on an ambitious transition towards sustainability. 

Will the ambition of the ASEAN leaders, while necessarily different in scale from their European peers, be able to launch a much clearer and much more exciting and engaging vision for the region?

How much do the citizens of Southeast Asia care about ASEAN? 

How much do they know about the upcoming summit? 

As I said, the ASEAN leaders will have to come up with a very effective and rapidly doable set of actions able to impact the lives of their citizens. 

For example, social protection has been touted as a key component for the reconstruction. 

Several member nations of ASEAN were able to deploy the resources needed to support the immediate needs of millions of their citizens. 

How long will they be able to roll out cash-in hands support? 

Would it make sense to come up with a strong social security initiative for the most disadvantaged citizens of the region? 

What about the status of the public health in the region? 

Is there a common way to enhance the effectiveness and accessibility of public health services available to those who need them the most, especially in these times? 

Can this perhaps become a full-fledged, long-term ASEAN health “mission” with funding and technical expertise being mobilized?

Such questions might be naïve but for the people of the region to start taking notice and caring for their regional bloc, and most importantly, for them to start thinking of it as a true community, it is essential that ASEAN summits shift from beautifully written communiqués to real action on the ground, with imagination and audacity. 

This will require long-term thinking and a true reckoning with the way the bloc works.

Too much power is in the hands of the governments while the Secretariat is still playing a secondary role. 

The real conundrum is that effective, game changing actions that create a sense of common destiny and unity among people of a region can only happen when the pillars of regional integrations, i.e., its institutions, are strong, well-equipped, and most importantly, more autonomous from the capitals. 

As for now, it’s hardly imaginable reading an official conclusion from the upcoming summit and find there something transformative, engaging, and exciting for the people of Southeast Asia. 

One way to start raising the bar is to invest big resources in what already exists within ASEAN. 

As sustainability and a green transition together with localized pathways to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals should be key priorities, an institution to invest in is the ASEAN Biodiversity Center based in the Philippines.

A trailblazer, the center is a hidden gem that could show how regional integration can work.

With its potential still untapped, just imagine the long-term benefits of having the leaders of the region fully recognizing the center’s fundamental role to help member nations preserve and enhance their fragile eco-systems. –

Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE and writes on social inclusion, youth development, regional integration, and the SDGs in the context of Asia Pacific.