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Expectations from ASEAN Summit meetings

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The ASEAN summit meetings starting from November 12-15 will address issues which have challenged the Southeast Asian region this year, and much of the initial work has been discussed under the Vietnam chairmanship during the summit meetings. In fact, one of the critical areas which we discussed during ASEAN preparatory meetings and also during the subsequent East Asian Summit will be related to maintaining peace and also addressing the peaceful resolution of disputes, particularly in South China Sea, outlining the need for compliant to the UNCLOS, abiding by the principles of international law.

It is acknowledged that the different aspects related to regional security, trade and investment, addressing challenges related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4th IR), developing mandate and consensus with regard to the ASEAN community vision, and also developing common consensus on environment protection, marine debris, river water pollution and transboundary haze. One of the important milestones that ASEAN has achieved in the last two decades has been expanding its external relations with countries such as Canada, Chile, EU and many other countries which contribute to the development and foreign direct investment in this region. These existing partnerships need to be complemented with new partners which can accelerate economic development and growth prospects.

It is acknowledged that the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) has been challenged in the past but new countries such as Cuba, Colombia, and South Africa have signed the treaty. The TAC has been discussed as an important element of maintaining regional peace and stability, and there is need for strengthening this process so that new entrants can be accommodated. The important aspect which have been really outlined last year has been with regard to the ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific concept. Therefore, there will be discussions that how complementarities could be explored between the organisation and the geopolitical concept. As in the ASEAN outlook towards Indo-Pacific it has been outlined that the cooperation can be explored in the terms of maritime connectivity, security, promoting sustainable development, and outlining new avenues for economic operation.

The issue of new membership in ASEAN might also be discussed. In the past few years countries such as Timor-Leste have been seeking to consider for their entry into the ASEAN but Timor need to fulfil certain basic criteria which can be discussed during these ASEAN meetings.

For ASEAN, the vital issue will be to engage the new US administration under the democrats and maintain their attention that US has been given to this region particularly in terms of SCS and also supplying military hardware to many of the countries which are facing tensions with China. Given the fact that Indonesia and Vietnam have been elected as a non-permanent member of the UN it is possible that the dialogue partners and these two countries would outline important areas which can be addressed at the highest level.


One of the areas that the ASEAN can explore can be undertaking extensive corporative arrangement with the United Nations as many countries within Southeast Asia are representing their cases to the UN and its associate agencies, synergy between the two organisations is foreseen. The ASEAN also needs to work on the emergency response and assessment team which includes rehabilitation and repatriation of displaced persons across this region in the wake of COVID-19.

Refugees has been a major bone of contention among Southeast Asian nations. In this regard it is pertinent that the ASEAN will seek indulgence of countries such as Myanmar and also address problems with regard to rehabilitation of the Rohingya refugees.
The safety with regard to the South China Sea and maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight would be critical for the regional maritime trade and commerce as well as civil aviation. The 2002 Declaration of the Code of Conduct of parties in the SCS has not been valued by dialogue partners such as China. Therefore, it is critical that the Code of Conduct (COC)should be discussed during the meetings with the dialogue partners. It is acknowledged that the mutual trust between the claimant parties has been on the downslide and the deficit in mutual trust has disturbed the peace and tranquillity in SCS.

The developments with regard to Korean peninsula and the dialogue with the US have given a hope that the Korean peninsula might seek peace and as two Southeast Asian countries (Singapore and Vietnam)were involved in the dialogue process between US and North Korea. The possibility of continuing the process under nee US administration might be discussed on the side-lines. This year has been harmed southeast Asian economies because of pandemics and floods, and therefore a consensus is required with regard to medicine, standard protocols and also into ASEAN cooperation among member countries.


One of the important initiatives that has been taken by the Vietnam was the ASEAN defence ministers meeting in February 2020, in which it was noted that coronavirus disease has been making a major impact in the regional security and stability, and there was a need for acknowledging it as a public health emergency. The chairman statement with regard to ASEAN collective response was acknowledged. It was stated that there should be a strong collaboration in terms of military medicine, and collaboration through a network of chemical, biological and radiological specialists across the southeast Asian countries. Another initiative which have been taken during the meeting has been to enhance practical cooperation among the defence establishments so as to address this pandemic and bring about best practices as well as engaging the ASEAN Centre for military medicine in undertaking research related to this. This meeting proclaimed that there is a need for exploring new initiatives and ways to contact fake news which might increase public anxiety and also hinder any collaborative activities within ASEAN.



With regard to theASEAN mandate it was critical that the impact of the COVID-19 on labour and employment need to be addressed so that the right of the migrant workers as well as developing progressive labour practices could be undertaken for enhancing competitiveness within the organisation as well as promoting safety and health protocols within the region.

The ASEAN has been addressing has been promotion of human resource development as well as developing networks for technical education and skills development. While the organisation has been preparing for promoting the fourth industry revolution and therefore it has become important to utilise technology for better inclusive and sustainable growth which can provide regular employment and growth opportunities among the labour across the region. Many of the countries in Southeast Asia have been large concentration of small and medium enterprises and are providing employment opportunities. Consequently, it has been found that there is a need for developing better labour practices as well as protecting the rights of the labour.
As discussed earlier one of the important meetings which was being held in April 2020 was to seek affirmation from the 15 countries participating in the RCEP programme to accelerate their efforts in actualising this regionwide free trade area, and Vietnam has been insistent that India  should be invited to partake in the negotiations once again.

In one of the statements made by the ASEAN chairman in June 2020 it was acknowledged that public health emergencies and the need to control the pandemic would be important for promoting resilience societies and healthy workforce. Importantly, since many of these ASEAN nations are export dependent economies, it will be critical that the resilience supply chain and a captive market is promoted in a big way. The dialogue between the health sector professionals as well as promoting technical exchanges related to big data, telemedicine and surveillance of the diseases need to be taken on in the forthcoming ASEAN meetings. It would be prudent that the ASEAN response fund and supporting economic recovery programme at regional level would help many nations through cross sectoral collaboration as well as mitigating the impact of this pandemic.

While it is acknowledged that the ASEAN community meeting would highlight the midterm review of the ASEAN community blueprints for the year 2025, it would also be critical that issues such as gender sensitivity, women in parliament, promoting ASEAN youth and also in the ASEAN Parliamentary assembly would be areas where Vietnam would like to take the lead. As the mandate for this year’s ASEAN meeting is “cohesive and responsive ASEAN” and therefore stress will always be there with regard to solidarity and centrality of this organisation.

The year 2020 would be a judicious milestone to look out into the future plan of action and how the organisation as a whole could work with regard to medical supplies, equipment, addressing public health emergencies and developing research and vaccine development program within the region itself. In the past the organisation has worked remarkably with regard to addressing environmental concerns, non-traditional security issues, and also taking security initiatives at the regional level.


Initiatives related to ASEAN integration among the mainland Southeast Asia countries would be a priority so that economic complementarities and division of labour as well as better production facilities should be developed across Southeast Asia. In terms of the connectivity within the organisation, the discussion would be related to infrastructure projects, supply chain resilience, building people to people connectivity   and also promoting higher education linkages between the dialogue partners and the ASEAN member nations.


One of the important elements which have been often discussed within the organisation has been developing the smart cities network, incorporating capacity building initiatives, developing repository of knowledge, and sharing best practices so that sustainable development as well as better resource management within the cities could be done. Dialogue related to the ASEAN community, aspects related to political security and cultural issues will be taken up as usual but it will be also critical that the associated organisations such as East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and other associate organisations would be discussing international developments. It is expected that South China Sea and building consensus on single draft a letter to code of conduct would be a priority under UNCLOS provisions.

One cannot deny the fact that even though majority of the ASEAN meetings throughout the year have been done in cyber and online mode but the agreements and the understanding that have been developed through ASEAN meetings would require concerted effort and sincerity on the part of member countries and the ASEAN Chairman to bring it to a logical conclusion. The ASEAN chairman Vietnam has waved the magic wand and the outcome would be interesting to watch.

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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Southeast Asia

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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