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Assessment of Vietnam’s Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2020

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Vietnam took over the chairmanship of ASEAN from Thailand in November 2019, and outlined the motto for the ASEAN meetings in 2020 to be ‘cohesive and responsive’. This was meant to bring about more consensus and unity with regard to initiatives such as promoting internal strength of the organisation, developing economic connectivity and integration as well as revisiting the ASEAN values and identities in the context of new emerging challenges. Vietnam took the chairmanship of ASEAN when the organisation was facing challenges with regard to peace and security, climate change affects, and also the need for outlining the future for developing the region as an ASEAN community.

In the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc speech given in January 2020, he clearly outlined that the organisation needs to work on community, capacity, identity and also developing operational efficiency of the organisation. The main theme of the organisation was to bring about ASEAN community spirit. Over the period of eleven months ASEAN has worked strongly with regard to developing better relationship with dialogue partners including European Union, China and India as well as coordinating meetings between ASEAN and Japan, most of them in online mode.

Interestingly, the agenda for the year 2020 has been outlined for ASEAN under the Vietnam chairmanship and there were challenges with regard to addressing issues related to economic integration and also developing common protocols about public health emergencies, and sharing of information related to the countermeasures against COVID- 19. In fact, during the ASEAN senior officials meeting many issues which have been discussed in the past have been highlighted and a common consensus was reached. During the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting which was held in September 2020, it was highlighted that there is a need for reinforcing the ASEAN community vision of the year 2020, and buttressing ASEAN centrality in new multilateral formulations in the region, clearly alluding to the Indo-Pacific construct.

Vietnam has effectively brought about comprehensive assessment of the institutional mechanisms within the organisation, and also reviewed the documents with regard to ASEAN community blueprints. The most important aspect which has been highlighted by Vietnam has been developing collective effort against the COVID-19 pandemic, and establishing joint groups related to public health emergencies. The challenges for the post COVID-19 recovery have already been considered by the ASEAN organisation and it was suggested that the organisation should undertake comprehensive recovery framework as well as a time bound implementation plan. This highlighted the need for research and joint production, and distribution of vaccines through cold chain supply networks so that the larger population of the Southeast Asia could be protected from this pandemic in future.

The major consideration which have been addressed by Hanoi has been in the field of trade facilitation and doing away with unnecessary non-tariff measures so that supply resilience as well as new challenges such as food security, financial stability and issues related to energy can be addressed in a cohesive way.                                 

One of the earliest meetings which was conducted by Vietnam has been in the field of ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) organised at Laos which acknowledged the gravity of the situation in the COVID-19 phase, and stated that ASEAN solidarity and unity is necessary for preventing and making countermeasures against this pandemic. This meeting undertook special measures such as emergency operations centre and also taking necessary cohesive joint actions related to assistance, information and sharing of best practices. Outlining the need for cooperation with ASEAN dialogue partners, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and related bodies, highlighted the adeptness of Vietnam in understanding the problems with regard to pandemics and bringing about consensus on these issues.

Even before ACC meetings when the foreign ministers retreat was held in January 2020, the issues of the stability and prosperity as well as addressing the emerging challenges in the South China Sea was addressed without any biases. Even though one of the biggest handicaps which was faced by Vietnam during the whole year has been conduct of online conferences and developing understanding among ASEAN member states but Vietnam very tactfully addressed the issue of 4th industry revolution in the meetings,  and how it is going to change the economic landscape of the region. It also highlighted the relevance of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and exuded confidence that many other non-regional countries will be accepting the TAC.

Major initiatives which have been taken by the Vietnam under the chairmanship included better cooperation on transnational crime, public security and coordination among the ASEAN law enforcement agencies. Recognizing the need for better financial architecture in the Southeast Asia, Hanoi has brought about dialogue between financial institutions and banking sectors in Southeast Asia, and taking a cue from G-20 summits, it also addressed that there is a need for developing better organised financial architecture which can bring about financial stability.

One must acknowledge the fact that despite lot of constraints because of the online meetings, Vietnam was still able to get approval of more than 42 documents during the September meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers. The one interesting part was to bring about more activities and responsibilities to the ASEAN Regional Forum under the Hanoi Plan of Action -II (2020-2025). One of the major highlights has been discussing the South China Sea, and referring to it as East Sea during the ministerial meetings. 

                                                
The forthcoming 37th ASEAN summit meeting would be highlighting the challenges that the region faces in terms of ASEAN centrality, bringing about ASEAN unity and resilience as well as promoting trust among the members. The issue of Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea /East Sea needs to be resolved so that China can be brought to the table and sign on the compliant mechanisms related to the East Sea. It also needs to be brought to the attention that economic recovery within ASEAN and addressing the non-traditional challenges such as terrorism, natural disasters, catastrophes, climate change as well as increasing transnational crime need cooperation at regional level, and also promote intra organisational understanding so that these challenges need to be addressed on a priority basis. Now when there are increasing US China tensions in the South China Sea/East Sea as well as the problems with regard to COVID-19 pandemic, the discussions will be intense and therefore bringing about consensus would be a difficult job. Further the challenge of holding this meeting in person would require a lot of logistical support and critical thinking so that public health and sanitation are not compromised. 

The task for Vietnam would be cut out for the forthcoming ASEAN summit meeting. It needs to be seen how the region looks into the pandemics, the floods and other natural disasters among the member countries while at the same time developing standard operating procedures and cooperative mechanisms so that citizens in Southeast Asian countries can be protected. Vietnam is expected to take the lead with regard to outlining the utility of TAC, undertaking preparations with regard to granting development partnership to European nations such as France and Italy well at the same time bringing Cuba and Columbia as the new signatory to the TAC. Many of the issues which have been addressed in the previous meetings need to be reinforced in the context of developing trust, inclusive, open and rule-based regional security architecture. It would be prudent to note the suggestions which will be coming from the dialogue partners and also many other agencies which are involved in the process of maintaining of security and stability as well as the agenda for developing the ASEAN community in future.          

Pankaj Jha is faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He can be reached at pankajstrategic[at]gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

Transforming Social Protection Delivery in the Philippines through PhilSys

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Social protection helps the poor and vulnerable in a country, especially in times of crises and shocks that may threaten the well-being of families. When COVID-19 hit and quarantines began, the Philippines needed a massive expansion of social protection coverage to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Countries that already had good and inclusive digital infrastructure (including internet connectivity, digital identification, digital payments and integrated data ecosystems) were better equipped to quickly adapt their social protection programs to meet urgent needs. They also fared better in maintaining continuity of services when in-person interactions could be moved online.

For the Philippines, it presented a challenge, and strain was felt in the delivery of social assistance under the Bayanihan acts.

Fortunately, the country is moving to address digital infrastructure gaps, including through the development of the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys). PhilSys is one of the most complex – but also game-changing – projects undertaken in the country.

The Philippines is one of only 23 countries without a national ID system. As a result, Filipinos need to present multiple IDs (and often specific IDs that many do not have) when transacting, including with government, creating barriers to services for the most vulnerable among the population. Information across government databases is often inconsistent. These undermine the Philippines’ transition to a digital economy, society and government. The PhilSys will help address this by providing all Filipinos with a unique and verifiable digital ID (and not just a card), while also adopting innovative and practical data protection and privacy-by-design measures.

The new partnership agreement between the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for DSWD’s adoption of the PhilSys is a milestone for the Philippines’ social protection and digital transformation journeys. DSWD will be the first agency to utilize the secure biometric and SMS-based identity authentication offered by the PhilSys to uniquely identify and verify its beneficiaries. Pilots with the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS) program will begin within the next few months, before PhilSys is used by all DSWD programs.

Adopting PhilSys will enable DSWD to further accelerate its digital transformation. By automating verification and business processes for its programs and services, DSWD will be able to improve the impact while reducing the costs of social protection programs. PhilSys will assist with identifying and removing ghost, duplicate and deceased beneficiaries to address leakages, fraud and corruption, and thus boost transparency and public trust. The unified beneficiary database that DSWD is developing with the help of PhilSys will contain up-to-date and consistent beneficiary information across all programs.

The World Bank is supporting these DSWD initiatives through the Beneficiary FIRST (standing for Fast, Innovative and Responsive Service Transformation) social protection project.

Importantly, these changes will translate to benefits for Filipinos.

Those who interact with the DSWD will face less paperwork, queues, hassle, costs and time. With their PhilSys ID, they will also have better access to a bank or e-money account where they can potentially receive payments directly in the future, promoting financial inclusion. Indeed, more than 5 million low-income Filipinos have already opened bank accounts during PhilSys registration. And the resources that DSWD saves can be redirected to addressing the needs of beneficiaries who live in remote areas without easy access to internet and social protection programs.

Beyond the advantages for social protection, the digital transformation PhilSys will catalyze in the public and private sectors can be fundamental to the Philippines’ pivot to reviving the economy and getting poverty eradication back on track. Success in utilizing PhilSys for social protection will have a significant demonstration effect in accelerating digital transformation by other government agencies as well as the private sector.

But digital transformation is not easy. It is not about simply digitizing things. It is about re-imagining how things can be done for the better, with technology as an enabler. Digitizing bad systems or processes just leads to bad systems or processes digitalized. Digital transformation therefore depends on and can only be as fast as process re-engineering and institutional and bureaucratic changes to overcome inertia.

Digital transformation must also be inclusive to avoid exacerbating digital divides or creating new ones.

The effort will be worth it. And the World Bank is firmly committed to scale up our support to the Philippines’ digital transformation agenda. A digital Philippines will not only be more resilient to future shocks – whether they are natural disasters or pandemics – but also be poised to take advantage of the opportunities brought by COVID-19 (shift of activities online) and those that lie ahead in the post COVID-19 world.
 first published in The Philippine Star, via World Bank

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Bringing “the people” back in: Forest Resources Conservation with Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma

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With a lifetime dedicated to forest conservation, Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma reflected back on his career and what forest management means to Thailand. In the year 1978, he received the prestigious United Nations and Ananda Mahidol Foundation Scholarship to attain higher education at the College of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, USA. After graduating in the year 1985, he returned to Thailand with a commitment to teach and research at the Department of Forest Management, Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University until his retirement with full professor position. The excerpts below encapsulated a conversation between Dr. Pattaratuma and Dr. Rattana Lao on forest conservation.

Beyond the classroom: An anthropological perspective

I dedicated my life to study the anthropological aspect of forest management to His Majesty King Bhumibol Aduyadej of Thailand. I studied cultural dimensions of forest management in many areas of Thailand. I began with Huay Hin Dam with Karen hill tribe (Pra-ka-ker -yor) Suphanburi Province. I tried to review the international literature on land use and combine it with in-depth interviews with the hill tribes to understand the cultural dimensions of their livelihoods. I observed how they built their houses and how their managed their forest. There are three characteristics of the Karen tribe. Firstly, they lived on small plots of lands and their houses are very small. Secondly, they conserve their forest land with water resources. Thirdly, they refrain from using pesticides. Culturally, there is a clear division of labor amongst men and women. While men will clear the lands, women will cultivate agricultural goods such as papaya, guava and banana. There is limited drugs use.

It’s liberating to do research beyond the classrooms. To observe real live, real changes. I learnt more than I set out to do and they are all interrelated to a bigger picture.

Intersectionality between culture, migration and forest management

Karen hill tribes migrate in a cluster. There are more than 3 families migrating together to the new fertile forest land. They will migrate together when land is exhausted. This is most evident in the borderland between Thailand and Myanmar. Back then they did not have official documentation but slowly they do. There has been an influx of hill tribes from Myanmar to Thailand due to political conflicts from Myanmar. From my observation, they are very conscious about forest conservation and resources management. They said: “no forest, no water”. They are compelled to protect the forest from pesticides in order to keep the water clean and their health well. They are very logical. Although they grow rice, it’s very subsistent and only for household consumption. They don’t grow rice for commercial purpose. This is the land use for Karen hill tribe.

I also studied in Kampeangpetch, Nan, Chiang Rai, Phrae and Lumphun. Each place is diverse and the situation is really different. Some local tribes are preserving of the forests, others are more detrimental. We need an in-depth study to understand the cultural dimension of land use for each tribe.

The heart of forest management

People. It’s the people. People must particulate in the forest management. Otherwise, it is very difficult. When we go into each location, we must approach people and bring them into the conversation. I have tried to do all my life. Civil servants must approach people, not other way around. People are looking up to our action. They look into our sincerity and commitment. If they see that we are committed to study about their livelihood, they will share the right information and they will help.

Indonesia is a good example of successful forest management. The state get people involved. In every kilometer, there are four actors involved in protecting the forest: soldiers, policemen, villager and forester. They help each other protecting the wildlife and forest resources.

Can legal change help the people?

Legal relaxation can help lessen the pressure between man and forest. Before the legal requirement was very strict. Any kind of forest intrusion would be caught including small hunters gatherers. I think that is too strict. That put people against the law. People should be able to go into the forest and pick up some mushroom and bamboo and some wild products to lessen their poverty and hunger.

As long as people are still hungry, it’s very hard to manage the forest. There must be a way to balance the two: people livelihood and forest management.

Capitalists invasion

Much of the legal attention is paid to small farmers use of the forests. However, the real issue is big corporations invade the forest. This is very significant. Deforestation happens mostly from large scale corporation rather than small scale farmers. There are many loopholes in the system that lead to systemic corruption and mismanagement of land use. Many wealthy houses are built on large scale timber to exemplify wealth and status. It saddens me.

Would the next generation get to see large tree in the forest?

Less likely.

What can we do to protect the forest?

There are many organizations that responsible for the forest protection such as Royal Forest Department, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. But the manpower are not sufficient to cover the large area of forest in Thailand. There are not enough permanent manpower to go on the ground and protect forest resources, while the intruders to National Parks are equipped with more advanced weaponry.

To protect the forest, the state must be committed and the people must participate in the process.

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Southeast Asia

Possibilities for a Multilateral Initiative between ASEAN-Bangladesh-India-Japan in the Indo-Pacific

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In the Indo-Pacific context, there are multiple partners all aiming for economic fulfillment along with maritime security and safety. Countries ranging from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea seem to be more worried about the freedom of navigation and overflight as Chinese aggressiveness is rampant and expansionist is a scary idea. The region from India to Bangladesh has a huge potential of interconnectedness and if connected to the Southeast Asian countries, it would also help in India’s Act East Policy and India’s neighbourhood first policy and further help out in strengthening relations to the far East as in Japan. All these countries combined can create an interconnected chain of mutual and common interests with balanced ideas of economic, military, social, political and people to people exchanges which would in turn help develop a multilateral.

Who can lead this Multilateral Initiative and Why?

Japan can be the prime crusader for this multilateral as it has excellent relations with all the parties and is the pioneer of the free and open Indo-Pacific. Japan has excellent diplomatic, economic and infrastructural relations with all the possible partners as it provides ODA loans, aid and assistance. Japan being the pioneer of Free and Open Indo-Pacific can be guiding force for this multilateral in the maritime domain which would help create a new regional grouping consisting of South Asia and Southeast Asia primarily based on maritime. Japan is the only developed country among all the other players and with its expertise, it can surely guide, help, support and take along all the countries. Japan most importantly is a non-aggressive nation and believes in mutual respect unlike China. Japan has no dept trap issue unlike China. Japan is known for quality in infrastructural development and with their expertise in science, technology and innovation can well lead these countries. Japan’s reputation of honesty, no corruption and extreme detailed paper work is commendable.

What are the benefits from this Multilateral Initiative?

This multilateral would help connect the Indian Ocean (India) to Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the South China Sea (ASEAN) and the East China Sea (Japan)- would help in the creation of water interconnected network from South Asia to Southeast Asia. This could be the first regional maritime grouping covering South Asia to Southeast Asia. This maritime grouping can create a network of ports which could also become an economic hub and intersecting points of investment and infrastructural development (already Japan is investing in a big way in all these countries). India’s Northeast would get a greater economic, infrastructural and people-to-people exchange as it would connect India to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Mekong Ganga Economic Corridor already exists and could pave the way for Bangladesh and Kolkata greater port exchange which could be developed as nodal points in Bay of Bengal and would help in easy and cheaper freight. These countries can also aim for the strengthening of defence and security relations in the domain of maritime and can also aim for a logistics support agreement and a network from Indian Ocean to Bay of Bengal to South China Sea to East China Sea and would help tackle Chinese aggressiveness and China has been mapping the waters in all these waters and so, to protect one’s territorial sovereignty and integrity, defence relations must be build.

An ecosystem based on Digitalization, Science, technology and Innovation can be formed which would help create a united cyber security law and all this could ultimately lead to the 4th Industrial Revolution. South Asia and Southeast Asia would be lucrative markets and labour distribution and generation of employment can be done through the ports, logistics network, economic and trade exchanges and interactions. This multilateral would form a resilient supply chain in the region of South Asia and Southeast Asia in the domain of Indo-Pacific. Marine economy can be a major factor of this multilateral initiative as it would be a major success in the maritime domain. This multilateral can also work on vaccine diplomacy and work on future health hazards mechanisms.

Why Bangladesh must think of adopting the Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Bangladesh must adopt the Indo-Pacific strategy and create its own objects and call it the SAMODHRO NITI. Bangladesh has the capability of being an excellent maritime power and it is a major leader in the Bay of Bengal and to be an effective part of this multilateral. The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) would be a key binder. Bangladesh must realise that China by building dams on the Brahmaputra River would actually create issues for Bangladesh’s fishery catchment areas as it would get inundated with salt water and to stop that Bangladesh must work to strengthen its position to tackle China. Also, China could also create water issues for Bangladesh and Bangladesh must look at ways to safe guard its water resources. Thereby, Bangladesh must work towards countries who face similar issues with China. The Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor is an excellent example of cooperation but this Multilateral if formed can be a stronger initiative and Bangladesh benefits from it as being a hub of textile, leather and pharmaceuticals and this Multilateral has all the efficiency of becoming an economic hub which would benefit Bangladesh too. If Bangladesh adopts an Indo-Pacific Policy, then its market in Japan, the US and Europe would become stronger due to shared interests and can also sign a Free Trade Agreement with EU like Vietnam did.

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