Ms. Retno L. P. Marsudi
Viet Nam News
ASEAN @50 series
Retno L. P. Marsudi*
Minister for Foreign Affairs, Indonesia
As Asean celebrates its 50th anniversary in August, there is much to cherish. Despite its imperfections, as the Economist puts it, the association is “the only game in Asia” whose networks also “provide a rare opportunity for global leaders to build trust.”
Although Asean has much to rejoice, there is even more to reflect upon. What does the future hold for Asean? What would its next chapter look like?
As a proud daughter of Asean, I passionately share its story in various international fora, from the recent Oslo Forum to the G20. I learned that the international community holds Asean in high regard, and they have plenty of good reasons to do so.
The saying that “we do not know what we have until it’s gone” also goes for Asean. It is tempting to criticise Asean for its shortcomings, but let us imagine our region and our world without Asean. A region where disputes easily transform into full-fledged wars, where each country only competes and forsakes collaboration, and a world where Southeast Asia is just an arena for major powers to flex their muscles.
Instead of that, thanks to Asean we have a region that has been relatively free from any major intra-state armed conflicts since the Vietnam War; a region where the 1992 free trade agreement has enabled intra-regional trade to soar from US$80 billion (S$ billion) in 1993 to almost US$550 billion in 2015, propelling Asean to be the world’s sixth-largest economy; and a world where Southeast Asia is one of the engines of peace and prosperity.
In short, Asean has succeeded in building an ecosystem of peace and prosperity for the region.
Furthermore, Asean has also evolved from a somewhat loose association to a more robust Asean community in 2015 that seeks to serve its people better. Not to mention that today when regionalism seems to take a hit elsewhere from Brexit in Europe to the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf, Asean continues to display unity and stability.
These accomplishments by no means imply that we should be complacent. Putting extra efforts is the trait here, as reflected in the successful conclusion of the Framework of Code of Conduct (COC) by Asean and China.
Nonetheless, we are constantly reminded that, “we are made wise not only by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.” As the benefactors that inherit a more peaceful and prosperous Southeast Asia, our generation is responsible for shaping a better future of Asean.
Future directions: The people
Having said all this, I remain very excited about what the future to which Asean is heading. But I am convinced that the best is yet to come.
The best that I mention refers to the people.
The future of Asean is one that is not only peaceful and prosperous, but also a future where the people are at the heart of it all. Asean’s next chapter should be more people-oriented and people-driven where its endeavours are dedicated to catering to the people’s needs in all areas.
To that end, in concrete terms there are three issues that Asean should concentrate on, if the association wants to secure its premiere place in the future.
First, Asean needs to focus on fostering an inclusive and competitive economy that works for all of its people. As GDP per capita of an Asean member is 40 times smaller than another member, inequality between and within states remains a formidable challenge. Asean must embrace the rapid digital transformation in the globalised world while ensuring that nobody gets left behind.
Platforms to reduce inequality such as the initiative for Asean integration must be strengthened.
Asean should boost its connectivity in accordance with its connectivity master plan in order to galvanise trade and investment in all corners of the region. Moreover, Asean should also work on trade agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that delivers benefits for all of its people.
Second, Asean should also tap into the tremendous potential of low-skilled migrant workers. Asean has made great headway for the movement of high-skilled professionals through the Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRA). However, the overwhelming majority of migrant workers in the region are not skilled professionals. For instance, the MRA only covers less than one per cent of the total workforces in Thailand and Indonesia.
More should be done to ensure the protection of low-and medium-skilled migrant workers in a way that safeguards the interests of both countries of origin and destination.
Third, Asean has no other alternative but to continue to stay in unity while redoubling efforts in strengthening its institutional capacity. This has been especially pertinent against proliferated challenges the association must tackle, widely ranging from traditional and non-traditional security issues to an urgency for a strengthened Asean Secretariat.
As outlined in my article in The Jakarta Post (July 21), the future of Asean will be marked, by, among other things, the exigency to address its external relations especially with major powers in the context of geo-political rivalries, the threats of terrorism and how Asean can stay relevant amid the rapidly changing regional and global strategic landscapes.
Coping with all these would require a greater sense of unity as well as fresher and more inclusive outlooks that would keep Asean relevant, up and running.
With its revived focus on the people and their needs, in the next 50 years Asean will not only grow to be an even greater powerhouse in the world but more importantly it will instill a more profound sense of belonging and ownership among all of its people, not just the diplomats or corporate moguls.
Today, many of our people might be puzzled when asked what Asean is or what it means to them, but in the next 50 years it is not far-fetched to conceive a future where the people say that in addition to being Indonesian or Vietnamese or Filipino, they will say that “I am also Asean.”
*The writer was Indonesia’s former Ambassador to Norway and Iceland. This is a special series of articles to mark the 50th anniversary of the regional grouping, by the Asean members of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 regional media entities.
ASEAN @ 50 series:
ASEAN: Journey of progress, challenges and future direction
Finding the right equilibrium
Into the Future
The next chapter
Time for an Asian-Asean century