The annual ASEAN Roundtable provides a forum for leading scholars and commentators to examine key issues and challenges affecting ASEAN as a region and as an institution.
ASEAN STUDIES CENTRE
Tuesday-Wednesday, 12-13 October 2021 – The ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held its 36th ASEAN Roundtable, themed “Braving the Storms: ASEAN in Crisis Mode” on 12 and 13 October 2021. This year’s roundtable discussions anchored around the charting of the region’s path towards a post-pandemic equitable and inclusive economic recovery, critical areas that are vital for ASEAN’s transition to a more inclusive and resilient society, and ASEAN’s strategic positioning in managing evolving regional geopolitical challenges and uncertainties. The Roundtable examined the complexities and nuances of the issues that underlie these uncertain times and provoked frank and open discussions on how ASEAN can remain steadfast in the post-pandemic recovery, open up further growth opportunities and shore up ASEAN’s resilience in the long run. The Roundtable was supported by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.
In his Opening Remarks, Mr Choi Shing Kwok, ISEAS Director and CEO highlighted the existing geopolitical challenges that have been complicated by the pandemic, and put direct and indirect pressure on ASEAN’s stability, cohesiveness and centrality in the security and economic architecture of the region. The roundtable was a timely opportunity to take stock of the pertinent issues and the possibilities for achieving an inclusive recovery in the region. Existing issues in the region include geo-political tensions between Washington and Beijing, growing terrorism threats as a result of Afghanistan, the Myanmar crisis, climate change and natural disasters. In the face of these issues, ASEAN as a whole was working on keeping supply chains open, prioritising digital transformation and restoring travel for the sake of inclusive economic recovery.
Mr Christian Echle, Director of the Regional Programme Political Dialogue Asia, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung spoke of the challenges facing the region over one and a half years, ranging from health issues, livelihoods to misinformation, distrust, and inequality. He was of the view that besides the Covid-19 pandemic, the most urgent crisis that ASEAN is facing right now is the issue of Myanmar. He also highlighted ASEAN’s central role in the European Union’s and Germany’s strategies in the region and the need to strengthen ASEAN resilience in response to those challenges.
In his Keynote Message, Minister of State for Trade and Industry Mr Alvin Tan insisted that ASEAN centrality and unity continues to be key to maintain peace in the region. He identified three mega trends that ASEAN could leverage: (1) digitalisation and the possibility of an ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement by 2025; (2) enhance supply chain resilience through addressing non-tariff measures (NTMs) and expanding the ASEAN Single Window to external partners; and (3) the transition towards a green recovery, which includes the finalisation of a Framework for Circular Economy. In response to the theme of “Braving the Storm”, Mr Tan said that smooth seas do not make good sailors. Despite current troubles and setbacks, ASEAN states can now plan ahead based on experience and navigate long term challenges and opportunities in the region.
Session I: Promoting a More Inclusive and Equitable Economic Recovery in ASEAN
The economic panel examined the strategies that ASEAN can employ in promoting a more inclusive and equitable economic recovery. The session was moderated by Dr Cassey Lee, Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Regional Economic Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
The regional endemic normal outlook from Dr Chua Hak Bin, Senior Economist, Maybank Kim Eng had two possibilities — one more pessimistic than the other. The more pessimistic scenario included higher public debt limits that can trigger tax increases, greater deglobalisation trends, higher inflation, stricter border controls, US-China rivalry and new endemic normal disruptions. The more optimistic scenario included a release of pent-up demand, higher savings, tech renaissance and digital boom and infrastructure that could strengthen connectivity and combat climate change.
Dr Sanchita Basu Das, Associate Fellow of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute discussed the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework, the pace of national vaccination roll-outs, supply chain disruptions in ASEAN and how paperless trade gained importance during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the implementation of paperless trade practices varied significantly across the region – faster in countries like Singapore, slower in countries like Myanmar and Laos. Dr Das pointed to the ASEAN Cooperation in Supply Chain Connectivity and Trade Facilitation and the digitisation of ASEAN Documents as key towards greater regional connectivity. She also urged a broadening of the understanding of sustainability and resilience in ASEAN in order to grow.
Mr Sebastian Cortes-Sanchez, Deputy Director of the Asian Trade Centre focused on the impact of the pandemic on micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in the region and how social distancing, border closures, dwindling sales and general demand decline have exacerbated supply chain bottlenecks. While the region has done a fairly good job through economy-level changes and domestic reforms to address MSME needs, it could do more to ensure that MSMEs can continue trading across the region. Mr Cortes-Sanchez identified consistent policy and regulatory approaches as the need of the hour. For instance, paperless trading adoption in the region could ease trading pressures on MSMEs by cutting down cost and time factors.
Session II: Leveraging the COVID-19 Crisis for a Sustainable Future
The second panel examined three critical areas for ASEAN’s sustainable transformation: green recovery, reskilling of the workforce and circular economy. Speakers made the case for recovery policies that generate new strategies, tools and policy reforms that will ameliorate the impacts of future shocks, cushion unexpected business reversals, and empower just and inclusive societies in the event of future crises instead of returning to environmentally destructive stimulus packages to drive new hard infrastructure. The session was moderated by Ms Lee Sue-Ann, Senior Fellow of the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Ms Jukhee Hong, Executive Director of CARI ASEAN Research and Advocacy spoke about climate change and asserted that green transformation is a goal that should be pursued by ASEAN nations in the endemic world. She pointed out that the individual ASEAN countries’ climate actions known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) could be more ambitious. Furthermore, CARI’s reports show that green measures are not prioritised in ASEAN’s response to Covid-19 although they should be. For instance, although there is little focus on climate-aligned green jobs. Ms Hong listed 21 actions for ASEAN nations to implement, ranging from green jobs to green stimulus spending and green investment.
Dr Venkatachalam Anbumozhi, Senior Economist and Director of Research Strategy and Innovation, Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) examined the drivers of a circular economy transition and whether a new economic model and business strategy can provide an opportunity for recovery. He suggested that resource efficiency through circular economy concept is crucial for the future of manufacturing industries and climate change mitigation. Furthermore, while 3R approaches are effective entry points, innovations such as the integration of 4IR and financial models are important for the regionwide wide success of circular economy. Dr Anbumozhi highlighted that more attention was needed to develop market scenarios for circular economy such as waste-to-energy projects and the willingness to share products and services.
Mr Goh Seow Hiong, Executive Director of the Global Policy & Government Affairs, Asia Pacific, Cisco Systems looked at how to prepare the workforce for the future. He observed that, at the skills level, there was demand for knowledge of using technology and devices. He highlighted that 4 million cybersecurity jobs worldwide and 2 million in Asia-Pacific remain unfilled. Mr Goh also pointed to the prevalence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies and the displacement of manual jobs by machines and that large swathe of the ASEAN workforce needs to be reskilled. However, he ended his presentation on a positive note with the reminder that ASEAN’s relatively young population puts the region at an advantage, as they are technology savvy in this mobile-first environment. Thus, with the right skills and technology, it will not be too late to train them.
Session III: Regional Political and Security Landscape
The last session examined key events and developments that have shaken and reshaped the region’s political-security landscape in 2021, including the Myanmar crisis and other evolving geo-political considerations that are posing challenges to ASEAN’s unity and centrality.
First panel: The Myanmar Challenge to ASEAN Unity and Centrality
The first panel was moderated by Dr Michael Montesano, Visiting Senior Fellow and Coordinator of Myanmar Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Dr Michael Vatikiotis of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD) spoke of the developments in Myanmar since the February military coup, ASEAN’s efforts in the implementation of the five-point consensus, and criticism of the failure by ASEAN to address the fallout from the Myanmar crisis. He noted that recent developments in the regional and global arena have been complicating the Myanmar crisis. ASEAN was facing credibility challenges and struggling to retain regional security centrality as well as stay relevant in the face of increasing superpower rivalry and a rapidly changing world order. While ASEAN member states are paying more attention to their domestic affairs given their political issues and domestic leadership transitions, Dr Vatikiotis reiterated that weak political will and poor environment for assertive diplomacy during the pandemic have affected regional diplomacy and decision-making process in ASEAN. The Myanmar crisis has become a global problem which involves various issues of humanitarian, public health, refugees, etc. He highlighted that with weak leadership and increasing geo-strategic polarity in the region, the chance of reinforcing ASEAN’s relevance and its role appeared slim for the time being as the pandemic continued to affect the region. Dr Vatikiotis ended by suggesting that perhaps ASEAN needed a special envoy unto itself to understand what centrality really meant to the grouping.
Mr Min Zin, Executive Director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP), Myanmar spoke of different international approaches towards Myanmar. While the ASEAN way undermines ASEAN’s centrality in addressing the Myanmar crisis, ASEAN’s non-interference and consensus building principles are becoming structural and institutional constraints. Amongst ASEAN member states, there have been different reactions from member states towards the crisis. Some are hesitant to act, and some are optimistic that the issues would be resolved under Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2022, which remains to be seen. Mr Min Zin was of the view that the Myanmar crisis was a contextualized process and immediate breakthrough could not be expected in the short term. ASEAN therefore should act as a convenor and a new pragmatic strategic should be rolled out to coordinate with other players in terms of diplomacy.
Second Panel: ASEAN’s Standing in the Regional Order
The second panel was moderated by Dr William Choong, Senior Fellow of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Prof Alice Ba of the University of Delaware, USA first cited the challenge of the rise of alternative minilateral frameworks (such as AUKUS and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue). Formed largely as a reaction to the difficulty of dealing with pluralism in existing multilateral institutions, she opined that such minilateral arrangements threaten ASEAN by (1) threatening specific ASEAN arrangements; (2) challenging Southeast Asian states’ strategic preference to avoid competitive fragmentation; and (3) threatening ASEAN centrality. Furthermore, while ASEAN Centrality has served the region well in providing states a larger voice in regional agenda-setting, she cautioned against taking ASEAN centrality literally and placing the bloc within a hierarchy of institutions. Prof Ba highlighted the opportunity for ASEAN to reframe the goals of ASEAN Centrality by rethinking its value and reframing centrality more as a notion of connectivity, in terms of connecting fragmented centrifugal forces. She noted ASEAN’s strength in this regard, citing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and highlighted unrealised opportunities for increased connectivity in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) and in the Mekong. She emphasised the opportunity for ASEAN to be more proactive in redefining the value of ASEAN centrality and what the bloc can do, rather than defensively defending a seeming institutional status quo. In conclusion, viewing centrality through the lens of connectivity offers ASEAN ways to focus on more tangible and realistic outcomes.
Dr Tan See Seng, Research Adviser of The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University put forth three key points in his presentation. Firstly, he opined that US-China rivalry will persist rather than abate as had been initially hoped for with the Biden Administration. While he expected US-China relations to remain rocky with Southeast Asia as ground zero, he did not rule out that US-China rivalry could benefit the region in the short-run in the economic realm. However, he noted that being courted by both superpowers is only beneficial if both countries do not expect ASEAN states to choose one side over the other. Secondly, he believed that ASEAN and its member states would continue to seek and maintain a semblance of strategic autonomy in response to US-China rivalry. Hedging remains the preferred strategy especially in terms of how ASEAN responds to initiatives led by both superpowers. The AOIP is a prime example as it not only articulated the bloc’s autonomy but also extracted acknowledgements of ASEAN centrality from external powers. Thirdly, he highlighted Singapore’s response to US-China rivalry within the context of its role as spokesperson of the regional bloc. He referenced Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2020 appeal for a modus vivendi that balanced both competition and cooperation between US and China and one that did not force the region to choose. Dr Tan found it significant that Singapore was chosen as the venue through which statements by high-level US officials of not forcing ASEAN to choose sides were made. He noted that any form of a ‘Goldilocks’ arrangement between US and China would give ASEAN strategic space to breathe. However, this would necessitate a type of power-sharing arrangement by both great powers, which remains to be seen. In conclusion, how the US and China optimised their relationship was key to ASEAN’s future role and place within the Indo-Pacific.
In her Concluding Remarks, Ms Sharon Seah, Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute summarised the topics and issues discussed over the three sessions and highlighted that the ongoing Covid-19 crisis has not only continued to persist for the second year running, but it was now compounded by many more complex challenges and greater entrenched fault lines. She pointed out that while ASEAN remained preoccupied with the public health and economic crises stemming from the pandemic, new geopolitical strategic developments in the region including the Indo-Pacific, Quad, AUKUS, along with the escalating crisis in Myanmar, now threaten ASEAN unity, cohesion and centrality. With weak leadership and increasing geostrategic polarity in the region, the chances of reinforcing ASEAN’s relevance and role were increasingly difficult for the time being as the pandemic continued to impact the region.