ASEAN in 2021 and Challenges for Member States

Although every new year brings numerous opportunities and challenges for the ASEAN and its Member States, the year 2021 will be particularly significant for Brunei’s Chairmanship which has chosen for itself the theme “We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper” during its ASEAN Chairmanship. The Chairmanship and the grouping will be put to test for not only improvingits resilience but it must confront unprecedented circumstances, developments within the grouping as also in its external environment. These span the socioeconomic-economic-political-diplomatic-strategic continuum.

First is about the COVID 19 pandemic which is still unfolding. Many of the ASEAN states are experiencing the Third Wave and are preparing for the post-pandemic economic recovery which presents unique challenges. A cursory look into the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF) and its implementation plan suggests that there are five broad strategies which the ASEAN is expected to focus on i.e. (a) Enhancing Health Systems; (b) Strengthening Human Security; (c) Maximizing The Potential of Intra-ASEAN Market and Broader Economic Integration; (d) Accelerating Inclusive Digital Transformation; and (e) Advancing towards a More Sustainable and Resilient Future. Experts argue that ASEAN policy makers would also need to think of “digitalization, supply chain resilience, and skills development” as part of the integrated recovery and growth strategy. Furthermore, the labor-intensive manufacturing sectors of the past would need to be disrupted and skill development will be the key to remain competitive for which the ASEAN workers will have to hone the right kinds of skills.

Second, the ongoing domestic political crises in Myanmar is a testing time for intra-ASEAN diplomacy. The ASEAN Member States appear to be divided over developments concerning the military takeover of the political leadership in Myanmar; Indonesia, Singapore and Philippines were plainspoken i.e. “Indonesia urges all in Myanmar to exercise self-restraint and put forth dialogue in finding solutions to challenges so as not to exacerbate the condition”; a Singapore statement expressed “grave concern” over the development; and Philippines view is that the policy of non-interference in a member’s internal affairs “is not a blanket approval or tacit consent for wrong to be done there”. Meanwhile, Cambodia stated that they do not “comment” due to their firm observance to the principle of non intervention in the internal affairs of Member States. The best that Brunei as the rotating Chair of the AESAN could do was to recalled the ASEAN Charter’s principles on the issue of democracy and issue a statement which stressed on “dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar."

Although there have been at least two deviations in the past from the above principle, and these concern Myanmar. In 2007, ASEAN leaders chose to give pass to Myanmar’s turn to host the ASEAN Summit over concerns about its authoritarian government. Next year, in 2008, after Myanmar was hit by Cyclone Nargis and its mishandling of the crisis, the ASEAN “directly engaged with the government and serving as a channel for aid from the international community”. ASEAN has also been confronted with the dilemma on how to act concerning the prosecution of the Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. It is not surprising that ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights not only expressed anguish over the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar but also accused ASEAN Secretariat and Member States of being “caught between respect for its key principles of consensus and non-interference”

Third is about the geo-political shifts in the Indo-Pacific region and President Biden’s Presidency which like his processor has chosen to continue to put pressure on China over a number of political, economic and strategic issues. The recently signed interim National Security Guidance has targeted China and labelled it as the only “competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system”. The US has enormous expectations from the ASEAN vis-a-vis China and is keen to support the Member States of the grouping through military capacity building to withstand the pressures from a highly aggressive China particularly in South China Sea as also in response to the newly enacted Chinese Coast Guard Law.  

These are complex challenges and a perennial dilemma confronts the ASEAN. Also, it is not possible for the Chair of the ASEAN to shoulder the responsibility during crisisall by itself. This is an opportune moment for Vietnam to bring to bear its diplomatic acumen that was admirably put to purpose during its Chairmanship of the ASEAN in 2020. It with stood the pressures from China over South China Sea; it admirably warded off any US prodding against China; and conducted the activities of the ASEAN with alacrity despite COVID 19 pandemic. In essence, its skilful diplomacy on behalf of the ASEAN has earned it respect of the Member States. Today Vietnam is primed to support the Chairmanship of Brunei through proactive diplomacy on post-pandemic economic recovery among the ASEAN Member States, play a proactive role in ongoing crisis in Myanmar, and manage tensions between China and the US.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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