37th ASEAN ROUNDTABLE – Fifty-Five Years On: Is ASEAN Still Relevant in the Changing Global Order?

This year’s Roundtable examines key challenges facing ASEAN, including the Russia – Ukraine war and the growing global bipolarity, the intensification of China-US rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, and the vision of ASEAN post–2025


Tuesday, 1 November 2022 – The ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held its 37th ASEAN Roundtable, themed “Fifty-Five Years On: Is ASEAN Still Relevant In the Changing Global Order?” on 1 November 2022. The aim of this year’s Roundtable is to examine the implications of key events on ASEAN, including the Russia – Ukraine war, the intensification of Sino-US rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, and the Myanmar crisis; how ASEAN responds to current and future challenges facing the region; and discuss key priorities for the ASEAN community making beyond 2025.

The Roundtable was supported by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

Opening Remarks

Mr Choi Shing Kwok delivered his Opening Remarks. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In his Opening Remarks, Mr Choi Shing Kwok, ISEAS Director and CEO highlighted ASEAN’s remarkable achievements across the three Community pillars and its efforts in institutionalising cooperation through various integration frameworks, instruments, and ASEAN-led mechanisms that have drawn all major powers to support its centrality. He spoke of the geopolitical landscape, increased geopolitical rivalries, post-pandemic recovery, supply chains disruption, and climate change amongst others as key challenges to ASEAN’s stability, cohesiveness and centrality in the security and economic architecture of the region.

Mr Andreas Michael Klein delivered his Opening Remarks. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Andreas Michael Klein, Director of the Regional Programme Political Dialogue Asia, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung spoke of the existing geopolitical challenges that put pressure on ASEAN unity and centrality, and highlighted ASEAN’s central role in the regional security architecture and multilateral mechanism. Challenges could be turned into opportunities and ASEAN can have relevance in the changing global order. He believed that the timely ASEAN Roundtable this year would be a great platform for regional experts and experienced ASEAN hands to unpack and examine the key challenges facing the region.

Keynote Message

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan delivered the Keynote Message. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In his Keynote Message, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan shared his reflections on world history that set the context for ASEAN’s foundation fifty-five years ago. He spoke of the global and regional geostrategic environment and its implications for ASEAN. The evolving relationship between the US and China, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the question of Myanmar are immediate challenges facing the region. In this context, he spoke of ASEAN’s relevance as an open platform for external partners to engage the region and ASEAN’s growth potential and its efforts to enhance regional economic integration and opportunities to harness digital technologies. While the question “Is ASEAN still relevant?” is not new and will continue to be asked in the years to come, ASEAN needs to maintain integrity, unity and centrality, and harvest the enormous opportunities.

Session I: Playing the Great Game

From left to right: Dr William Choong, Dr Evan Laksmana and Professor Kishore Mahbubani. With Ms Lee Sue-Ann as moderator. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

This session examined ASEAN’s options for navigating great power rivalry and the proliferation of Indo-Pacific strategies and initiatives in the region while maintaining its centrality and asserting its priorities. The session was moderated by Ms Lee Sue-Ann, ISEAS Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme.

Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, predicted that US-China relations will only worsen in the next decade. As the region will no doubt be affected, he urged ASEAN not to remain passive and begin “preparing for the storm”. He suggested three rules for ASEAN to tackle this challenge: firstly, ASEAN should adopt a more confident tone. In terms of delivering peace, prosperity and harmony, Professor Mahbubani argued that ASEAN has had much more success than any regional organisation. Secondly, ASEAN should proactively and openly assert its stance of not choosing sides between the US and China. Thirdly, ASEAN should form a global coalition with other regional organisations, who are also struggling to tackle the US-China rivalry, in order to collectively manage the two superpowers. 

Dr Evan Laksmana, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, offered a critique of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. While a useful reference point for diplomatic meetings, he stressed that the Outlook should further help shape strategic outcomes in the broader Indo-Pacific. Dr Laksmana pointed out that the current ASEAN mechanism alone, with reiterations of existing norms and principles, would not be enough to generate momentum and show leadership. Furthermore, there was relatively little support for the Outlook from within ASEAN than from external partners. To expand the Outlook, the network quality between member states must be improved. Indonesia, as the next ASEAN chair, should prioritise gaining support from within the grouping. Another task that should be addressed is the review and potential revision of the ASEAN Charter, as well as key concerns such as crisis management mechanisms.

Dr William Choong, ISEAS Senior Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, analysed the implications of the Quad on ASEAN centrality. He posited that the powers of the Quad seek to use ASEAN centrality to gain entry to ASEAN and achieve their respective goals. On the other hand, he acknowledged that the Quad is delivering on pragmatic areas of cooperation with ASEAN, such as climate change, vaccines and emerging technologies; as well as public goods such as the Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative. In line with these conflicting implications, he observed Southeast Asians’ ambivalence towards the Quad in the State of Southeast Asia 2022 Survey: while they welcome Quad contributions on vaccine security, they fear that ASEAN centrality will be undermined. Dr Choong concluded that while ASEAN is open to integrating many powers in its regional architecture, it still maintains its agency to choose its preferred regional order.

Session II: Safeguarding ASEAN Economic Recovery Against Global Economic Uncertainties

From left to right: Ms Alpana Roy, Dr Jayant Menon and Ms Syetarn Hansakul. With Dr Tham Siew Yean as moderator. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The second session explored ASEAN’s geo-economic outlook and policies to safeguard ASEAN economic recovery in the wake of the global economic slowdown, the Russo-Ukraine war’s effects on ASEAN economies, and discussed the importance of digital trade as a key driver of regional economic growth. The session was moderated by Dr Tham Siew Yean, ISEAS Visiting Senior Fellow.

Ms Syetarn Hansakul, Analyst (Asia) of the Economic Intelligence Unit spoke of the impacts of the Russo-Ukraine war on the world economy and ASEAN region. The spike in commodities prices with fuel global inflation to 9.4% this year, supply chain issues, and central banks’ rates hike would continue to affect global growth as a result of slowing growth in the US and China, and recession in Europe. As for ASEAN, strong headwinds to the regional growth are expected in 2023 as most AMS would see a slower growth rate. It is unlikely for the region to face a recession but key challenges remain, including negative impact on exports, high inflation, public debts, trade sanctions on Russia and the US-China rivalry, etc. She also spoke of how the challenges facing the region have changed for businesses in the finance system, green transition, technology supply chains, food security, amongst others.

Dr Jayant Menon, ISEAS Senior Fellow, shared his insights on the ASEAN economic integration under the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). He cited the latest growth projection of Southeast Asia which stands at 5.1% and 5.0% in 2022 and 2023 respectively. In the short to medium term, the US-China trade and technology war, regional supply chains issues, commodity prices fuelling inflation, monetary tightening policies as well as the rising protectionism sentiment will continue to be key challenges facing the region. In the long run, the need for labour mobility, divergent demographics and rising inequality among AMS, and climate change issues would need to be addressed. Dr Menon spoke of the shift from policies to values, restricting outputs to inputs, taxes to subsidies, tariffs to non-tariff barriers (NTBs), restricting imports to exports as risks to ASEAN recovery and integration. On the role of IPEF and regional FTAs in safeguarding the regional economic recovery, he discussed the need for greater factor mobility and trade that can partly substitute for factor movements. In the case of IPEF, it may even struggle to liberalise trade and may fuel bifurcation, disrupting China-centred regional supply chains.

Ms Alpana Roy, Singapore’s Senior Economic Official to ASEAN, and Director (ASEAN) of Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry highlighted the importance of digital trade as a key driver of regional economic growth and how digitalisation has changed the ways businesses operate. She spoke of ASEAN initiatives such as ASEAN Digital Integration Framework, ASEAN Digital Integration Framework Action Plan, ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA), and the role of Digital Economy Agreements in establishing trade rules and facilitating interoperability between digital economies. While digital transformation in ASEAN is in progress, there are challenges in terms of access issues, telecommunication infrastructure, and other domestic issues. She highlighted that there was room for ASEAN to work further to leverage digitalisation, including facilitating dialogue between national government and stakeholders and businesses to harness the potential of digitalisation for the benefit of businesses and consumers. 

Session III: ASEAN Community Beyond 2025

The third session discussed the ASEAN community building post 2025 vision, including the fault lines between maritime and continental ASEAN member states that threaten to unravel the unity of the grouping, and the place of Timor-Leste, regional institutional building, internal divisions within ASEAN and other critical issues that hamper regional integration. The First Panel was moderated by Ms Joanne Lin, Co-Coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre. The Second Panel was moderated by Dr Ian Storey, ISEAS Senior Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme.

First Panel: ASEAN Community Building and Challenges

From left to right: Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar and Ambassador Ong Keng Yong. With Ms Joanne Lin as moderator. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Executive Deputy Chairman, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) shared his perspective on the evolution of ASEAN in the past fifty-five years, highlighting that the Association has shaped mechanisms and shown leadership of its community building for the benefit of the people. ASEAN however is accused of not being efficient due to its non-interference principle. He reiterated that there was no magic formula to make the Association more efficient, but strengthening its institutional capacity and the decision-making process as well as ensuring domestic interests that do not hamper regional integration are critical exercises moving forward. ASEAN needs to take on more tangible cooperation with external partners in areas and platforms such as the UN SDGs, digital cooperation, and maritime affairs, amongst others.   

Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Co-Founder of Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) spoke of Timor Leste’s official membership application to ASEAN in 2011, following the country’s declaration of independence in 2002. Due to concerns over its economic capacity and human resources, Timor-Leste’s accession has been put on hold for ten years. Prof Anwar was of the view that it is now in ASEAN’s interest to admit Timor-Leste given ASEAN’s strategic interests to balance the dominating influence of China. Admitting Timor-Leste to ASEAN will elevate the Association’s reputation as a multilateral organisation that respects sovereignty; and garner international support for social development and civil liberties taking into account Timor-Leste’s excellent international reputation as a free country in the Freedom House’s Global Freedom List.

Second Panel: ASEAN Post–2025

From left to right: Dr Marty Natalegawa and Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh. With Dr Ian Storey as moderator. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh, former Deputy Foreign Minister of Vietnam reflected on the inevitable divide between continental and maritime countries in the ASEAN region due to historical reasons and economic interests. The divide nowadays is being bridged with political will and the need for regional integration and economic cooperation. As the region continues to face unprecedented challenges and uncertainties in the coming years, ASEAN needs to maintain its momentum for regional integration, ASEAN centrality and global engagement. In the case of Vietnam, while considered a continental member state, it also possesses a maritime perspective due to its long coastline and overlapping claims in the South China Sea. He was of the view that the continental and maritime divide could be bridged with cooperation on energy, for example, Laos’ hydropower electricity export to Singapore through the ASEAN’s power grid. 

Dr Marty Natalegawa, Former Foreign Minister of Indonesia shared his perspective on the global and regional geopolitics and key challenges facing the region. ASEAN is currently facing two double-whammy challenges that impinge on its relevance. First, the global uncertainty and instability with the US-India-China dynamic, China-Russia’s relationship, the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Straits, etc. Second, ASEAN faces great internal challenges, especially the Myanmar crisis. ASEAN needs to improve its cohesiveness and crisis management in response to these challenges.

In her Concluding Remarks, Ms Sharon Seah, ISEAS Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre summarised the topics and issues discussed over the three sessions. She said that ASEAN was at an important inflexion point. Many of these issues discussed at this Roundtable will continue to be revisited. Although the fragile, complex and complicated geostrategic environment presented many challenges for ASEAN, if the Association were to stay true to its roots of preserving peace and stability, Ms Seah believed that it can surely rise up to the occasion and do what needs to be done.

The Roundtable was attended by more than 350 participants both online and in person.