Where is ASEAN amidst the rise of protectionism?

While widely being deemed as strengthening the relations within the global West, most notably among North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) country members, Russia’s special military operation also reveals the loose cooperation in another certain parts of the world, especially the Southeast Asia region, exemplified by the lackluster role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in dealing with the rise of protectionism.

The rise of protectionism in Southeast Asia

Protectionism refers to the circumstance where the government is trying to boost their domestic conditions by restricting foreign economic influence, or in a broader idea, to pull their own goods back and be less active in the international market. Once seen as old-fashioned at the peak of globalization, the concept now rises again amidst a hardly anticipated event, showing how its relevance is still maintained. Not to mention the direct challenges of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine to the West, Asian countries, including ASEAN members, also struggle to manage the food and energy crisis. As a response to overcome the shortage and disruption of supplies, Indonesia banned palm oil companies from exporting their products at the end of April (although the ban was reversed three weeks later), followed by Malaysia’s chicken export suspension this June. 

While the initial motive of these countries, which is to prioritize ensuring the supply flow for the domestic market, might be understandable, the method they adopt seems to do more harm than good. At an individual level, the ban directly affects peasants and producers, limiting their customers and stakeholders list and, in other words, their financial profits. Consequently, the national source of foreign currencies also declines, in addition to the damage to international cooperation and partnership in exchanging goods. On a larger scale, the ban from prominent exporters in the Southeast Asian region could disrupt the global supply change, deteriorating the food crisis worldwide at such a critical time. 

Where is ASEAN?

The occurrence of protectionism in Asia, mainly manifested in the ban on food exports, with particular emphasis on one-fifth of the ASEAN state members, has questioned the role and capability of this regional association in dealing with unexpected large-scale crises. ASEAN apparently has its own economic pillar – the ASEAN Economic Community, with many frameworks and several food security mechanisms designed to deal with such conditions. However, little of them seems to be applied or work in the current event. In reality, ASEAN member countries are still struggling to ensure domestic food security, and one’s struggle directly affects another, taking the case of Malaysia’s poultry export ban tremendously impacting Singapore as an example. 

Contemporary realists might normalize states prioritizing their own demands and needs, stating that the governments of these countries have justified reasons to release the ban in the event of inflation and a price increase. However, the situation should not happen in the first place, and it only happens because of the loose connection between internal ASEAN and ASEAN as a whole with its partners. In theory, ASEAN countries are eligible to fulfill regional needs at the minimum due to many of its members remaining top importers and exporters worldwide, or at least the organization has trading partnerships with them. Despite that, hardly can the public see any reaction or stance of ASEAN regarding the problem of protectionism. ASEAN Way can be another excuse, as it has always been, further illustrated how the role of this association has been blurred from time to time.

It should be noted again that the current food shortage in the Southeast Asia region was preventable and is fixable. Nevertheless, ASEAN has few choices rather than deepening its internal cooperation and tightening partnerships with external counterparts based on the existing mechanisms and bonds. To be more precise, the example should be examined. The poultry export ban in Malaysia is explained by the disruption of corn and soybean supply from Ukraine, whose exporting in specific and the whole economy, in general, has been shut down, leading to the deficiency of poultry feed in partner countries. It is a very unwanted situation; however, it reveals an unfortunate truth to some extent. 

Ukraine is indeed a big corn and soybean exporter, but this does not necessarily mean that ASEAN countries are less compatible. In assessing such factors as geographical, logistic, mechanical, and characteristics, to name just a few, it is safe to say that ASEAN countries with each other have more advantages in exchanging products. However, these advantages have not yet been properly utilized, considering the fact that Malaysia has chosen to import these two kinds of agricultural products from Ukraine, a country that has fewer strategic features mentioned above, than ASEAN and its partners. Looking at other members of the association, regarding these products, they are primarily trading with each other and with ASEAN counterparts. In 2020, the US, Argentina and Brazil were top exporters whose strategies lean towards having a close bond with countries in Southeast Asia or value customers including them, according to the trade data of corn by OEC. When it comes to soybean, the situation is pretty much the same. Therefore, it could be concluded that Malaysia, as one of the member countries, is capable of trading with its fellow state members or at least repurchasing from them with the support of the ASEAN’s framework. This did not happen, leading to the chicken export ban that worsened the global food crisis due partly to the loose cooperation between ASEAN countries and the insufficient supervision/watchdog system at the regional level. 

Re-locate ASEAN’s position

ASEAN has already had specific sectoral bodies or committees targeting this aspect of the economy, such as the ASEAN Food Security Reserve Board (AFSRB), ASEAN Sectoral Working Group on Crops (ASWGC), ASEAN Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, ASEAN Technical Working Group on Agricultural Research and Development, ASEAN Sectoral Working Group on Agriculture Cooperative, to name just a few. What should be done is not to let these committees exist only in the documents but actually, apply them in real-life cases timely and efficiently. The region has full capability to support each other to overcome such crises, but it would probably take more time and effort to deepen the sense of togetherness and cooperation.

Vu Minh Anh
Vu Minh Anh
Vu Minh Anh (Ms.) Student, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Science Universitas Gadjah Mada