The 38th ASEAN summit meeting is held from October 26-28th and the list of areas to concentrate for the ASEAN would be far too many which includes focusing on the infrastructure projects, working on improved timelines for better implementation of the ASEAN Investment Area (intra ASEAN investment was $23 billion in 2021), emphasising on trade facilitation across ASEAN region, building better health facilities and pandemic infrastructure, and working on realisation of the three pillars of ASEAN communities. With the possibility of US President Joe Biden attending the ASEAN summit meeting through video conferencing shows the relevance of this ASEAN meeting. In fact, the major discussions and debate will be about the challenges that the region faces regarding the pandemic, health issues and fulfilling the objective of better pandemic management through effective health network, diagnostics, and therapeutics.
During the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting which was held in August 2021 the common motto was ‘we care, we prepare, we prosper’. During the meeting it was clearly earmarked that there is need for cohesive approach regarding ASEAN unity and centrality with a clear focus on saving people’s lives and protecting the ASEAN community by adhering to the common fundamentals of peace, prosperity, and progress. During the meeting the stress was regarding ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and peaceful resolution of maritime disputes under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The emphasis on protecting ASEAN identity, centrality and creating awareness among the people of the region was seen as a major precursor for building regional institutions and strengthen bonds between nations.
The member countries of ASEAN need to work on better managing the ASEAN Shield and working on unified response to disaster management through promotion of multilateral cooperation, respect in international law, striving to achieve peace, prosperity, and stability in the region. In fact, one of the areas which has gained much attention is regarding the 4th Industrial Revolution, developing better infrastructure for blue economy and promoting awareness among the department of foreign affairs in ASEAN countries.
During the last one year, it has been found that the organization needs to cooperate in promoting institutional mechanisms related to public health emergencies and collaborating in promotion of trade and addressing challenges to the return of pre Covid-19 levels economic growth. This summit meeting needs to address what exactly are the possibilities for utilising the ASEAN COVID fund, and undertaking regional research mechanisms to protect the children from the third wave of the pandemic.
ASEAN on its own can work on a regional COVAX initiative which can promote better coordination and cooperation among the medical community for better diagnostics and therapeutics. In fact, ASEAN is on the cusp of developing a better infrastructure which can promote research development, logistics chain for distribution of vaccines, and working as a organized unit for better bargaining of the bulk purchase of vaccines at the regional level. This regional approach will also help in the global initiative of COVAX which will address this region as a cohesive one unit. This will further help in better access to the international medicines and developing a regional response to the vaccine passport. The Southeast Asian countries need to undertake regional protocols for safe travellers and thereby promote intra-regional business and tourism. This can also be done through ASEAN travel corridor bubble and undertaking a region wide protocol for countering the spread of the pandemic through tourists and business travellers.
During the pandemic it has been acknowledged that while nations have been working hard to counter the side effects of the pandemic, but it needs a return to the sub regional initiatives in terms of economic recovery and sustainable development. The pandemic has also opened the avenues for promoting digital connectivity and creating mechanisms for sanitised logistics and cargo support. This will help in addressing sanitary and phytosanitary issues regarding trade within the region and even at transregional level.
In fact, one of the areas where the ASEAN needs to work very cohesively is to integrate the ASEAN region through port network, regional connectivity grids, energy, and electricity networks, and promoting better e-commerce avenues. The digitalization of the region will also help in gaining significant leverage regarding the Industrial Revolution 4.0 and getting the support from the dialogue partners on smart cities project across the region. In terms of research in science and technology, and the future role those new emerging technologies would be playing, the ASEAN must work on a blueprint regarding developing the region as the Research Centre for critical technologies. Given the fact that there are more than thirty critical technologies items the Southeast Asian countries can pick any three from the list to develop their niche areas and undertake concerted efforts to develop that sector in their respective countries. To create awareness and develop scientific acumen there is need for ‘talent to technocrat initiative’ which can groom the promising scholars in this field and developed the network of nodal institution across Southeast Asia.
While many issues which are non-traditional security threats such as terrorism, illicit drugs, human trafficking, cyber security have been addressed time and again in different ASEAN meetings, but it needs to be seen that how the COVID-19 pandemic has redefined the criteria for achieving sustainable countermeasures in this regard. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia needs better management and compliant mechanism. There is also requirement that the region-specific cyber defence network and creating centres of excellence in this field. The cue can be taken from the NATO cyber security networks and how a cohesive response mechanism can be created.
Maritime security and cooperation are the critical sectors which needs strong commitment from all the Southeast Asian nations. The UNSC sponsored special dialogue on maritime security outlines the need for addressing this from the point of view of climate change, illegal fishing, countering piracy, promotion of marine scientific research, safeguarding maritime trade and commerce. It should be acknowledged at the South China Sea is a major issue and the Southeast Asian countries should accept the deadline for the signing of the Code of Conduct (CoC) on South China Sea. Otherwise, it is expected that ASEAN centrality on resolving the South China Sea issues will be marred with internal frictions and tensions among the member countries. The dialogue partners already have outlined that there is need for consistent approach and engaging China in a compulsive manner so that certain protocols can be developed, and the status quo is maintained.
It is also important to note that the role which has been played by ASEAN Maritime Forum and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum is much below par and therefore these institutions need to revisit their mandate and objectives to be the harbinger of new ideas in this field. One of the areas which needs active involvement of the Southeast Asian countries is the climate change and the need to shift to clean and renewable energy sources. These issues have been addressed through ASEAN plan of action for energy cooperation but there is a need for more research in promoting energy security and safe transition to new kinds of energies.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which was signed in November 2020 needs to gain momentum, and given the fact there is tardy progress about domestic ratification procedures, it has been felt that a quick response mechanism on ratification should be initiated. Further, the Southeast Asian countries should also work on developing their own domestic capacities in manufacturing and services so that the rules of origin issue can be better addressed. The rules of origin issue were one of the issues on which India had strong reservations.
In terms of knowledge creation and education as well as human resource development this summit can achieve a lot. In the Manila summit held in 2017, it was highlighted that there is a need for employment generation and developing skills and capacities. It is opportune time after four years of the Manila summit to investigate what exactly has been achieved and whether there has been slow progress. The time has also come for reinforcing the role that the East Asia summit as the leaders forum can work on developing consensus on broad security strategic, economic, and political issues.
While ASEAN has clearly outlined its outlook on the Indo-Pacific, but it needs better structuring and identifying areas under which it can synergise its activities along with partners in the Indo Pacific. In terms of maritime cooperation, promoting connectivity and undertaking initiatives related to protection of marine life and developing protocols for sustainable harnessing of resources, there are immense possibilities.
About South China Sea dispute there is need for working fast on the single draft code of conduct negotiating text and addressing this on a priority. ASEAN countries themselves can outline their outlook about compliance as per the provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and promote that the ASEAN nations would be willing to subscribe to the legal regulations enshrined under the UNCLOS 1982.
If one evaluates Hanoi declaration 2020 related to the ASEAN community, it clearly stated that there is need for reviews of the blueprints of the ASEAN Community, ASEAN connectivity and initiative for ASEAN integration. These three documents need further review during this summit, and it is believed that a holistic approach should be adopted so that instead of rhetoric there is more tangible outcomes on ground.
The recommendations for the ASEAN Summit are many. ASEAN should really acknowledge the need for concerted approach in the field of comprehensive regional cyber security strategy, developing national ASEAN community councils to create awareness and responsibilities, creating the digital support fund to provide access to millions in terms of governance and redressal of grievances, undertaking a time bound approach with regard to single draft on code of conduct in South China Sea, developing critical technologies hub which can be decentralised and the country should be assigned there are areas of expertise which it can develop in the next decade. ASEAN also needs to undertake futuristic vision by commissioning a governmental group of experts which can undertake feasibility studies to make this organization more buoyant and proactive. ASEAN can also develop architecture and logistics to harness the global initiative related to resilient supply chains and even participate in the Build Back a Better World(B3W) Initiative by G-7 countries.