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Davos 2022: What role will 'ASEAN' play in a shifting geopolitical landscape?

ASEAN - A general view of G20 finance ministers and central bank governors meeting (FMCBG) at Jakarta Convention Center, Jakarta, Indonesia, February 17, 2022. Hafidz Mubarak A/Pool via REUTERS

ASEAN has a critical geopolitical role to play in solving common challenges. Image: REUTERS.

Joo-Ok Lee
Head, Regional Agenda, Asia-Pacific; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • All eyes will be on ASEAN this year as it hosts several key global summits, including the G20 in Indonesia.
  • The region is well positioned to pursue its ambitions to become the fourth largest economy in the world by 2030.
  • Ahead of Davos 2022 it's clear the region has an increasingly critical role to play in tackling global problems.

The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region will play host to global leaders later this year with the ASEAN Summits in Cambodia, B20 and G20 Leaders’ Summit in Indonesia and APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Thailand, all happening back-to-back.

With the changing face of geopolitics and the global economy, these meetings and the preparations in the lead up, will shed light on where ASEAN stands in its on-going recovery efforts from COVID-19 and how it’s coping with the economic implications of global inflation and supply chain disruptions. In addition (and perhaps more importantly) they will also reveal the state of affairs on regional collaboration, as well as its role in mediating between global powers to solve common challenges.

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A few months ago, ahead of Davos Agenda week, I co-authored an opinion piece highlighting the region’s opportunities towards more inclusive post-pandemic growth. Building on the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF), and leveraging the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with accelerated digital transformation seen across the region, I advocated that ASEAN was not only well placed to become the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030, but also to harness opportunities presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and bridge some of the vulnerabilities that have surfaced during COVID-19.

The world has changed significantly in those four months. However an optimistic outlook for ASEAN remains intact, and its balancing role has been further highlighted with intensifying conflict and tensions between superpowers.

ASEAN can harness collective action

Although the region will be reluctant to cross certain boundaries or join any particular side – for instance against Russia, even though many countries in ASEAN have spoken out in support of Ukraine and the need for a peaceful resolution – in the face of dire consequences of inaction, many hope that Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia can exercise leadership to find ways to bring key stakeholders together to solve some of the most urgent common challenges and restore faith in multilateral collaboration mechanisms.

In recent years, ASEAN has also experienced increased turmoil back home, with the crisis in Myanmar and continued political uncertainty in a number of its Member States. However despite these challenges, the region’s unique geoeconomic positioning, with strong ties to all major powers, together with the diversity in its economic make-up, enabling the block to advocate for both developed as well as developing economies, are some of the reasons why ASEAN can and should assume a greater role in the global stage at this critical turning point in history.

In this respect, it is encouraging that the joint press statement by the three nations’ foreign ministries, acknowledges the importance of shared commonalities in ambition between the three processes and pledges to leverage the crucial milestones and platforms this year to work towards preserving spirit of cooperation.

Upholding democracy, territorial sovereignty and rule based international order should not come at the expense of scaling up international efforts to combat climate change, accelerate the energy transition, digital transformation and advancing safe and seamless travel and trade for a more inclusive and resilient recovery from COVID-19.

As we have learned from experience over the last few years, many of the grave challenges we see before us know no national boundaries and require all of our collective efforts to find lasting solutions. All of the priorities laid out by the respective chair countries of the G20, APEC and ASEAN therefore need to harness more collaboration, not less, and should be leveraged to incentivize bridging differences between stakeholders.

ASEAN’s own progress on these issues can illustrate the power of collective action and enable the block to “walk the talk”. For instance, Asia Development Bank (ADB)’s Energy Transition Mechanism (ETM), launched in 2021 at COP26 in partnership with Indonesia and the Philippines, aims to retire 50% of coal-powered plants over the next 10 to 15 years, expecting to cut 200 million tons of CO2 emission per year. If expanded across the region, bringing on board other major coal consumers, ETM has the potential to become the world’s largest carbon reduction programme.

RCEP, as the world’s largest regional trade pact in terms of population and GDP, presents a great opportunity to bring together different stakeholders in the region, to further deepen integration of economies with ASEAN at its core and provide a regional example of how trade and investment can be decoupled from rising geopolitical competition and tension to achieve greater common prosperity.

Spotlight on ASEAN

At the upcoming Annual Meeting 2022 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, with over 50 heads of state/governments, 250 senior cabinet officials and 1,500 business leaders from the world’s key economies expected to attend, all of these different dimensions will be examined. Through sessions like “Strategic Outlook on ASEAN” and “Assessing the Role of the RCEP Trade Agreement,” stakeholders will be able to better understand the priorities and opportunities presented by the G20, APEC and ASEAN, as well as for RCEP, heading into the first five months of implementation, and identify ways to overcome potential challenges.

“A Digital ASEAN for All,” will enable participants to share examples of how digital transformation in their respective sectors have advanced resilience, sustainability and greater collaboration in the region and look into multistakeholder solutions to build on these to make sure 4IR and inclusive digital transformation benefits all of ASEAN.

The next few months will be crucial for ASEAN and for the world. The window of opportunity closes in as we see fractures between nations further widen with challenges facing us growing by the day. ASEAN will be in the spotlight and it is up to not just the three chair governments, but for all of the region to seize this opportunity and show how “Unity in Diversity” can achieve steady and inclusive solutions – both for its own people and for the rest of the world.

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