“ASEAN-ology”, the science of studying ASEAN Affairs

by Simone Galimberti

There is no doubt that ASEAN deeply cares for its own citizens.

From blue economy to climate action to social workers to migrants to early child care, passing to the digitalization of economies, the tackling of transboundary haze, disaster management and human rights, and human trafficking, ASEAN is there for you.

These are just a few of the issues that the recent ASEAN Summit, held in Jakarta, had to tackle.

Actually, there are many more, but trust me, there is something for everyone.

If you go through the myriad of official statements and declarations released by the 2023 Indonesian Chairman of the ASEAN, you will even find more frameworks and action plans.

The list is mind-blowing, truly staggering and never mind that many of them are (apparently) overlapping and again (apparently) duplications of each other.

Let’s start with a review, very partial, of some of the issues that were included in the final Chairman’s Statement.

ASEAN as the next EV global Hub?

Promotion of electric vehicles in the region? Of course, that has already been discussed and decided over the 42nd ASEAN Summit in May, but still, more work is being done, including enhanced cooperation with Japan, South Korea and China and separately, a similar and hopefully complementary process is going on with the USA, part of the broader Comprehensive Strategic Partnership the bloc has with the Americans.

Towards an era of digital transformation (really)?

Things get really complex in matter of digitalization of the ASEAN Economies.

Recent news highlighted the start of negotiations for the ASEAN Digital Framework Agreement (DEFA), an agreement that many heralded as transformative.

The topic was indeed one of the few “positive” news about ASEAN that you could find in recent months. Something really relevant and tangible.

Yet, how extensive and comprehensive will be the involvement and participation of academia and civil society in the upcoming negotiations?

The ambition and overarching goals on this particular aspect are certainly high and potentially truly transformative.

“ASEAN DEFA will ensure that ASEAN digital transformation supports the vision of the ASEAN Community, the objectives of ASEAN economic integration, robust and inclusive recovery of the region, the region’s integration and strengthened role in the global economy, and improve ASEAN-based businesses’ ability to harness technological advancements as well as the well-being of ASEAN peoples” explain the framework for negotiating the agreement.

The DEFA, supposedly I guess, builds on ASEAN Digital Master Plan 2025 (ADM) and the Bandar Seri Begawan Roadmap that was adopted in 2021.

But what is the current status of the implementation of the Digital Master Plan? According to the official Chairman’s Statement of the 43rd Summit, (a massive and confusing document of 34 pages), progress has been made.

“ASEAN Framework on Logistics for the Digital Economy Supply Chain for Rural Areas and the Regulatory Pilot Space to Facilitate Digital Cross-Border Data Flows to Enable Self-driving Cars in ASEAN” recites the document.

It could not be clearer, isn’t it? Ah, I forgot that, according to the same statement, the ADM 2025 Mid-Term Review was carried out. Here is a small request to the readers: if you find anything about this review online, please give me a shout.

A disclaimer: the “OK” to the DEFA negotiations rightly happened after an in-depth study paid by Australia.

Again, in another amazing example of transparency, you will find the TOR (prepared by AusAid), but the study itself is not available only (also here, if you are a magician of the internet engine search and you find it, let me know).

How many integration plans?

Who fully understands the implications of the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI), and who can really appreciate the value of the related IAI Task Force? What about Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) Work Plan IV (2021-2025)?

We should not forget that there is a whole high level working group on creating the ASEAN Vision for 2045, formally the High-Level Task Force (HLTF) on ASEAN Community’s Post-2025 Vision (recently the remit got refocused on a larger horizon, 2045) but this is an entirely different process. What are the links between the IAI and the brainstorming process for a new vision for the bloc?

Be mindful that there is also an ASEAN Connectivity Post-2025 Agenda and an ASEAN Connectivity Coordinating Committee (ACCC).

Bets are open for those interested in understanding if there are real or hypothetical linkages between these three separated but (apparently) connected mechanisms.

On Climate Action

Now, let’s talk about climate change.

Some good news, at least theoretically, even if no one is aware of them or, perhaps, no one is bothering to know.

Did you know that ASEAN had a strategy for Carbon Neutrality?

It was approved, again, with Australian money (thank God, Canberra is stepping up and coming to the succour of ASEAN), and it was formally approved the 55th ASEAN Economic Ministers’ Meeting in August.

There is more.

Soon, at least we hope, the ASEAN will have a dedicated center on climate change based in Brunei, something that has been in the pipeline for a long while but is finally coming with the opening scheduled for this month.

It is not over. The Chairman’s statement also mentioned that the leaders are “particularly pleased with the decision to establish the ASEAN Centre of Excellence for Green Transition” which, supposedly, will be different from the ASEAN Centre for Energy, an independent entity within the ASEAN galaxy.

If we are lucky, perhaps we will find out something more about this new centre in the website of the ASEAN Climate Change and Energy Project (ACCEPT) project.

It is not over yet. Soon, the ASEAN will have a Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control that will based in Indonesia. If this centre will help implement the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, then it would be an important milestone; crossed fingers!

Importantly (at least we hope), the Summit decided the repositioning of the ASEAN Infrastructure Fund as an ASEAN Green Fund through the mainstreaming of the ASEAN Catalytic Green Finance Facility, which is a funding vehicle managed by the Asia Development Bank.

(By the way, what does it mean, and what does it imply the mainstreaming of this mechanism?)

Now, what about the Sixth ASEAN State of Environment Report ?

No news coverage was reported on it, why?

Is it because it is not a worthy reading or it is simply a problem of communication (and management) of the ASEAN Secretariat?

This should be a paramount document but, instead, perhaps because it is just one of the outputs of the wide ranging Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (a development that that happened over the summit and something I would define important if we take ASEAN seriously) between Japan and ASEAN, very little discussion to analyze its findings did occur.

Yet perhaps the most important development in terms of climate change can be found in another complementary declaration, the ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on ASEAN as an Epicentrum of Growth that looks like a summary of the major initiatives outlined in the Chairman’s Statement.

In this document, though vaguely, the reader will find the efforts of the bloc of “collectively achieve net zero carbon emission around mid-century”.

It other, less “understated” words, it means that, by around 2050, ASEAN should be net zero.

This is something worthy of having a conversation about. What do you think?

On Human Rights

Perhaps this is the unexpected area where we can find more progress.

At least this is an area where President Jokowi deserves some merit. To be clear, nothing revolutionary happened, but the Leaders at the Summit indeed recognized the (nominal) importance of human rights.

The leaders adopted the ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on ASEAN Human Rights that find prominence on page 2 of the Chairman’s Declaration after the paragraph related to Concord IV, which is not a revamped hypersonic passenger jet but a special gift from President Jokowi and the Indonesia Chairman that helps to further “muddle” people

Then on page 9 of the same Chairman’s Declaration, there is another whole paragraph on human rights.

I supposed we should congratulate Yuyun Wahyuningrum, the hyperactive representative of Indonesia within the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, AICHR.

Has some momentum been created to finally review the TOR of the commission, something that is based on Cha-Am Hua Hin Declaration on the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights endorsed in 2009 but not materialized yet?

Perhaps this will be one of the key topics to be discussed at the proposed 5th ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue that will happen in Indonesia.

The Chairman’s Statement, on this regard refers to the 52nd ASEAN Foreign Ministers ‘Meeting held in Bangkok in 2019 that stated the following

“We encouraged the AICHR to continue its efforts to fully and effectively discharge its mandates and functions, particularly in promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms of the peoples of ASEAN”.

Hopefully, the reference to this statement would be enough to reactivate the process of reform of the AICHR.

Last but not the least, The ASEAN Dialogue in Realizing Southeast Asia as a Torture-Free Region was held on 28-29 August 2023 at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia.

This is a very sensitive topic, and it is not very “cool” to talk about torture in the region, so let’s take note of this.

On Disabilities

The Chairman’s Statement also gives space to disability with the ASEAN Declaration on Disability Inclusive Development and Partnership for a Resilient ASEAN Community.

Also, this is a positive development, even though it is symbolic.

Moreover, the document also announces a High-Level Forum on Disability Inclusive Development and Partnership beyond 2025 that will happen this year in Indonesia at the end of the year.

The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly did not make the cut

This proto-regional parliament, actually a meaningless forum of parliamentarians of the member states of ASEAN, recently met in Jakarta for its annual gathering.

Oddly enough, the leaders did not bother to mention any reference to this meeting in the Chairman’s Statement.

Are they perhaps realizing that the AIPA process is just a nonsense?

On Foreign Relations

Canada and ASEAN are stepping up their cooperation. Now they are strategic partners, still a step below the “comprehensive strategic partnership” that only characterizes the relationship of the bloc with USA, China, Australia, India and, as already mentioned, Japan, but still important.

It is good news for Canadian business especially because of the interest in deepening trade relationships between Ottawa and the South East Asia.

It remains to be seen how taking advantage of the new status achieved, the Canadians will push for democracy and human rights in the ASEAN.

No good news for the European Union. Brussels is eager to establish is Indo-Pacific credentials, but it was absent, basically shut out of the regional summit. A big disappointment.

Now, perhaps it is worth spending a few words on the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

Once again, the two mechanisms are apparently overlapping but only apparently.

While the former is a “premier leaders-led forum for dialogue and cooperation on broad strategic, political, economic issues of common interest and concern”, the latter is exclusively focused on security.

Probably, these two mechanisms are the most promising ASEAN-led institutions as they bring together all the major powers around the same tables.

The Chairman’s Statement of the 18th East Asia Summit, the one held during the recent jamboree of events in Jakarta, is ambitious.

The problem is that the Action plan for 2024-2028, formally endorsed over the ASEAN Summit, is ridiculously vague and certainly inappropriate to carry forward the potentially ambitious role of this mechanism.

Perhaps the most positive development in relation to the East Asia Summit is the fact that there is an attempt to formalize and institutionalize the coordination meetings of the ambassadors of its country members. A great result in the greater scheme of ASEAN affairs, after all!

Finally and unsurprisingly, there was no decision on a timeframe based on which Timor-Leste would formally join the bloc as a full member.

Wrapping up

The topics and items listed are just a few of the multitude of issues mentioned in the Chairman’s Statement.

We should spoke about embryonic plans to realize a regional scholarship program, the so called Phase 1 of the Intra- ASEAN Scholarship Program for ASEAN Nationals that builds on EU’s Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region (SHARE) Programme but we are still very far from its commencement.

We should talk more about ant trafficking efforts and blue economy and sustainable resilience.

ASEAN, in short, covers the spectrum of policy making, but the problem, as we know, it is implementation, and all these declarations are just vaguely worded guiding documents.

The bloc needs a structural reform.

Almost all the official documents talk about organizational development and institutional effectiveness, but still nothing is really moving on this direction.

In theory, a simple declaration should give a broad and strong mandate to the ASEAN Secretariat but this is not the case yet and no one really knows what it will take to muster the political capital and will to equip the Secretariat to promptly shift into the implementation mode.

I doubt, and I am not the only one, we should expect much from the next chair of ASEAN, Laos, who is taking over from Indonesia.

Indeed, we were expecting more from President Jokowi and the Indonesian Chairmanship, but the intricacies of the bloc, divided by different values and priorities at the member levels, remain a too big stumbling block to climb.

You might have noticed that, throughout the piece, I wrote multiple times the adverb “apparently”. The reason is that understanding ASEAN affairs is a really complicated “stuff”.

Perhaps we should create a new discipline in the realm of international relations, the “ASEAN-ology” or the science of studying the abstract word of ASEAN.

You should not need to have a Phd or be one of the mandarins working at the ASEAN Secretariat to really understand what’s going on in ASEAN.

This is a real conundrum, and it is not only about much more effective communication. It is about a different level of transparency, accountability and openness.

In short, it is about coming up with a new ASEAN way, something that the citizens of the region are desperately in need of.

And by the way, if you find the sarcasm and irony I used in this piece irritating or frustrating, be certain that I wish I would not be forced to deploy them while writing on such an important matter as the regional integration process of South East Asia.

The author writes about regional integration, human rights and development in the Asia Pacific region.

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