ASEAN Cities: The Rise of Paradiplomacy

City governments around the world, in particular in Southeast Asia, have been forming multilateral platforms to tackle issues of climate change and income disparity.

People walk on the ‘skyway’ at the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore on March 29, 2019. (Photo: Roslan Rahman, AFP)

Melinda Martinus

22 April 2020

Since the urban era was declared by the United Nations in the early 2000s, city governments across the globe have been actively forming platforms to collaborate to tackle world’s hardest problems, namely climate change, poverty, human settlement and security, income disparity, and gender inequality. According to some projections, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050 – up from 54 per cent currently.

Southeast Asian cities, in particular, have been actively involved in prominent local government organisations (see table). These include United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40 Cities) and Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI).

UCLG, the global largest local government organisation with 240,000 cities and 175 local government associations, encompasses 11 cities and six local government associations across Southeast Asia. Cities such as Jakarta, Bangkok, Makati, and Yogyakarta are the UCLG’s World Council Members. They promote local governance capacity building and public participation worldwide.

C40 Cities, which consists of 96 cities representing one-twelfth the world’s population and a quarter of the global economy, boasts of seven Southeast Asian metropolitan cities, such as Bangkok, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Singapore and Quezon City. It has been working on carbon emissions reduction and climate change adaptation goals. The group helped the city of Jakarta to develop action plans to revitalise the capital’s urban parks and to reduce flood impact. C40 Cities also assisted Kuala Lumpur in developing a roadmap of carbon emission reduction goals through various strategies such as energy conservation, waste management, and public transportation improvement.

WeGO, a Republic of Korea-led organisation encompasses 19 Southeast Asian cities and states such as Baguio, Bandung, Da Nang and Penang Island. It has been using the network to conduct training and conference events on sustainable smart cities. It has also helped the cities in sponsorship matchmaking, global events for promoting cities, and knowledge-sharing opportunities.

Table 1 Multilateral Organisations for Local Government, including Southeast Asian Cities

  ICLEI UCLG C40 Cities WeGo Global Resilient Cities Network Strong Cities Network
Focus area Sustainable Development Governance and Public Participation Climate Change Smart and Sustainable cities Urban resilience Violent Extremism Reduction
Year of Establishment 1990 2004 2005 2010 2013 2015
Headquarters Location Bonn, Germany Barcelona, Spain London, United Kingdom Seoul, South Korea New York, USA London, United Kingdom
Number of Members 1,750 cities and local government associations 240,000 cities and 175 local government associations 96 cities 143 cities 100 cities 140 cities
Number of Southeast Asian Members 59 cities and 2 local  government associations 11 cities and 6 local government associations 7 cities 19 cities 8 cities 1 city

The rise of such multilateral bodies is part of a bigger trend. To address specific issues, build impactful projects for their urban populations, and boost global competitiveness, Southeast Asian cities are increasingly looking for resources beyond their national governments, primarily through international co-operation.

Realising the needs of Southeast Asian cities to access resources globally, ASEAN established the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) in 2018 as a platform for 26 pilot cities to work towards smart and sustainable development. The ASCN encourages local governments to catalyse bankable projects to solve urban problems by utilising technology and innovation opportunities provided by the private sector. ASEAN promoted the ASEAN Initiative on Environmentally Sustainable Cities (AIESC) from 2009 to 2015 as a part of the grouping’s Socio-cultural Community Blueprint. ASCN’s framework is similar to the AIESC framework. However, compared to the AIESC, the ASCN provides more concrete solutions.

For ASEAN, the ASCN is a new and innovative approach. ASEAN projects are mainly implemented through government-to-government channels. In the case of the ASCN, ASEAN facilitates pairing up between city governments and business entities to build concrete projects. Through this network, ASEAN has gone beyond heads of states and their respective national governments and deepened regional collaboration at the local level.

What to Expect Further?

City governments’ participation in international diplomacy or paradiplomacy has been widely known since the emergence of the globalisation era. Cities around the world have become more interdependent as global immigration has increased. In addition, many central governments have decentralised political power to local governments, and given them more autonomy to develop policies and programmes with targeted outcomes.

Nina Hachigian, the former US Ambassador to ASEAN – now serving as the First Deputy Mayor for International Affairs for the city of Los Angeles – wrote an opinion piece in Foreign Policy titled Cities Will Determine the Future of Diplomacy. She highlights two critical points.

First, local government diplomacy serves as a check and balance on state governments’ approach to international diplomacy. For instance, when President Trump announced the US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, more than 400 mayors representing over 70 million Americans pledged to stay in and are committed to helping the world reduce carbon emissions. Second, there is a freedom to focus on targeted outcomes and have fruitful relationships with foreign counterparts, even when tensions arise at the state-to-state level. Cities can engage many local partners – such as business entities, non-profits, citizens’ organisations – to handle specific issues in their local context.

…many central governments have decentralised political power to local governments, and given them more autonomy to develop policies and programmes with targeted outcomes.

The rising participation of Southeast Asian cities in international diplomacy indicates that Southeast Asian communities urgently need to see concrete solutions to tackle global issues locally. ASEAN, however, is still nascent when it comes to implementing projects at the local level. Yet, collaboration between the private sector and pilot cities in the ASCN have been fruitful so far. For instance, the City of Chonburi in Thailand has collaborated with the City of Yokohama in Japan to invest in building a smart and integrated industrial city. The ASCN has facilitated the pairing up of the Indonesian city of Banyuwangi with John Wiley & Sons, Inc, a global leader in education and scholarly research, to develop e-learning capacities and digital literacy.

With these achievements, the ASCN has been successful in synergising knowledge-sharing among its members as well as to drive desirable outcomes. In the longer term, utilising a pool of local government talent and assets in the ASCN to address broader issues will be critical for realising the lofty goal of an ASEAN Community. Up next – the ASCN could well address much-needed social infrastructure to address the development gap between ASEAN Member States.

Melinda Martinus is the Lead Researcher in Socio-cultural Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. This Commentary is based on her Perspective paper on ASEAN Smart Cities Network: A Catalyst for Partnerships, published on 21 April 2020.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/52

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.