In 2015, ASEAN member states adopted the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, charting the roadmap for each of its three pillars, towards a resilient and peaceful community through greater integration, inclusivity and connectivity. Nearly a decade has since passed, and it is timely for a stocktake on ASEAN’s progress. ASEAN will continue to face challenges navigating a fragmented world, with increasing geopolitical tensions between the US and China and competing claims in the South China Sea.
There are four key areas that ASEAN should focus on in the coming decades. Firstly, ASEAN countries should continue to work collectively to ameliorate the impacts of climate change on the region. In 2021, Southeast Asian countries faced high levels of displacement as a result of climate-induced disasters – more than 5 million people were affected in the Philippines, 749,000 in Indonesia and 780,000 in Vietnam. ASEAN can address these upheavals by building the blue economy, and minimising the effects of marine pollution and rise in sea levels. There are relevant guidelines and specific climate goals to achieve at the national and regional levels.
Secondly, ensuring food security in ASEAN since the major food producers such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand cannot keep up with producing crops three times per year. This would mean that more ASEAN states may need to import rice and other food grains, which until now the major food producers in the region have been self-reliant. The sustainability of food security is critical to feed the growing population in Southeast Asia.
The third area of focus would be job creation and facilitation of the movement of labour in Southeast Asia. During the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment rates spiked, reaching 10.4% in the Philippines, 7.1% in Indonesia, 4.5% in Malaysia and 3% in Singapore. There are areas for progress in terms of creating work for unemployed persons, and developing a system that allows for easier entry and exit of workers across ASEAN. However, further cooperation between governments and agencies in ASEAN is impeded by issues of nationality and competent skills of workers.
Fourthly, improving the education sector. Currently, there is a shortage of teachers in many countries. To address this, ASEAN should tap more into the educational expertise and resources of its member states, and work towards more recognition of relevant qualifications from certified agencies and schools in ASEAN. Furthermore, digitalisation must be deployed as a tool to help people communicate and over-come language barriers and technical competencies.
Reaching the Mass
More can be done in connecting with the people in the region. The poll on ASEAN Awareness in 2018 found that less than 1 in 5 respondents among businesses and Civil Society Organisations perceived that ASEAN’s public communication is effective. The perception among those surveyed is that ASEAN communicates with select groups on the government-level, at large corporations, and among elites.
ASEAN tends to dwell on the big-picture and strategic aspects, such as calling for restraint on overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea and engaging the major powers of the global stage. While these issues are important, attention cannot be diverted from socio-cultural development to build a resilient ASEAN which will deliver more ‘public goods’ such as greater connectivity, employment, and social security across the region.
Overcoming the National Ego
Ultimately, more needs to be done in ASEAN community building. Currently, there is still not enough readiness to accept the regional ego, over the national ego. With a strong ASEAN ego, ASEAN can better manage the unfavourable forces out there.
What is essential is the political will and leadership of ASEAN member states to implement the blueprint for the ASEAN Community based on the three pillars. If ASEAN is able to move constructively in this direction, ASEAN will build the foundation for an effective regional resilience to manage the challenges from wider geopolitical competition and rivalry.