When Asean was set up in August 1967, the founding fathers did not bother to make sure their newly formed organisation would survive for 52 years, as it already has. All they wanted to do at the time was to make sure they got together, looked each other in the eye and pledged to meet again next time. They had to increase their level of comfort with one another as they were trying to avoid future conflicts and looking for more cooperation. No war, make progress. That was a sufficient vision then.
As Asean gets older, more and more people are curious if it can survive into the future, say over the next 20 years. During the Cold War, Asean survived by its adaptive ability to juggle its relations with all major powers. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world has undergone big changes, and the international order has come under severe pressure to accommodate emerging powers near and far. Lately, these repercussions have proved to be so disruptive that the international community has had trouble grappling with them.
Indeed, any attempt to forecast what is going to happen over the next 20 years, as the world moves towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the Internet of Things, would be a bit ambitious. Any forecasts related to Asean, in particular, will be imperfect and incomplete as it can only provide a partial glimpse of the broader picture.
However, despite the unpredictable nature of the regional horizon, certain Asean behaviour and ways of doing things will not change. Its five-decade-old reputation, progress and centrality have endured, relying on strict adherence to the principle of non-interference and non-use of force. Moreover, Asean members still retain their state sovereignty in making decisions, which they must reach through consensus. Obviously, as the case may be, there will be incremental changes in its structure, mandates and procedures to ensure that Asean can quickly respond to any and all crises.
At the end of 2017, while planning to take over as chair of Asean this year, Thailand held discussions with the Jakarta-based international economic think tank, Economic Research for Asean and East Asia, about doing a study of Asean’s future in 2040. ERIA agreed to the proposal and spent one year and half putting together 60 scholars and experts on Asean and East Asia to work on this project. The outcome is a five-volume report titled, “Asean Vision 2040: Towards a Bolder and Stronger Asean Community”, which was officially handed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last month. The report will be distributed to Asean senior officials for further discussion by the grouping’s leaders.
The report focused on the new challenges facing Asean from within and afar. Obviously, the grouping’s survivability depends much on its ability to withstand external pressure resulting from the shifts in the geopolitical and geoeconomics landscape. Whatever Asean is contemplating doing in the future will be watched closely as the centre of the global economy moves towards the region. By 2040, China and India will be among the top four economies in the world in purchasing power parity.
Over the next two decades, the region and the world will be in the midst of the 4IR’s digital transformation, which will have both pros and cons for economic and social development. Due to its geographic location as a fast-growing global market where India-Asean-China trade and investment growth converge, Asean will encounter intense competition because it has less technological capability, skilled manpower and scientific and engineering expertise than China, India or Japan as well as the advanced economies of Northeast Asia.
Against this background, the report stressed that Asean must step boldly forward towards 2040 to transform the Asean community and secure its position in the region and globally. It lists a series of must-do actions in coming years, including taking up the principle of collective leadership encompassing Asean centrality; adaptivity and innovation; harnessing the digital transformation of the 4IR; embracing new technologies and best practices to achieve a resilient and energy-secure sustainability; seamlessly integrating and connecting Asean through good regulatory practices and governance; focusing on people empowerment and inclusion; and harnessing new technology networks and engaging with people to build a deep sense of identity; supported by a strong and effective institutional ecosystem for the Asean Community.
For the reform of Asean’s institutions, the report put forth five deliverable recommendations. First, building national institutions that are in tune with the overall Asean strategies. Second, breaking down the silos in Asean and improving cooperation among the three Asean communities. Third, reforming the Asean Secretariat so it becomes a more forward-looking technical resource and robust monitor of implementation. Fourth, putting in place a mechanism to review and analyse policy and regulatory structures across the Asean economies for consideration by the governments of member states. Fifth, encouraging regional research institutions and think tanks to work more closely with the Secretariat and other Asean bodies. The private sector and civil society should be similarly engaged.
Most importantly, the report pointed out that Asean needs to strengthen its people’s sense of ownership of the Asean vision and mission. “It must build over time the communal identity, the ‘we feeling’, the ‘ours feeling’ and the ‘we are together’ feeling. Asean can engage with people by harnessing new technologies and networks of people and institutions to deepen their sense of Asean belonging and identity.
“For, in the end, it’s when the people consider the Asean vision and mission as their own that Asean stands on firmer ground in managing the external uncertainties the region faces and helps to realise the aspirations of the people of their counties and Asean,” it concluded.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
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