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Jakarta Post

ASEAN recovery plan: Business as usual?

  • Simone Galimberti

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Kathmandu   /   Wed, January 27, 2021   /   01:44 am
ASEAN recovery plan: Business as usual? The ASEAN secretariat building in Jakarta was inaugurated in August 2019 in conjunction with the 52nd anniversary of ASEAN. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

With the ASEAN recently presenting its own pandemic recovery plan, officially the ASEAN “Comprehensive Recovery Framework and its Implementation Plan”, the entire region has a unique opportunity to reboot its integration process.

Fully enforcing the recovery plan would certainly provide impetus to the idea that the wellbeing of the people living in the region is intrinsically linked to an ASEAN that, as an institution, must necessarily be stronger and far more united than it is now.

Are the leaders of the region aware that the long-term implications of having the recovery plan realized might foresee a new scenario requiring more integration and consequentially a possible erosion of their nations’ sovereignty?

Perhaps the heads of government and state upon which the future of ASEAN depends on are still not fully cognizant of what it means to embark on a common process of regional recovery.

In the case of the European Union, the recovery framework envisioned will result in an unprecedented leap toward a more united continent.

Certainly this won’t be the case with ASEAN: The plan does not foresee any “revolutionary” leap toward a federal Southeast Asia, but for those cheering for a stronger ASEAN, the framework is the best hope the region has to march on toward a more united and cohesive region.

Perhaps the ASEAN leaders think that the wellbeing of their nations could really advance without rethinking their decision-making processes and consequentially giving up power.

The framework will enable member states to have much stronger health systems, more inclusive economies that will leverage the advantages of the digital economy while also fostering more human, sustainable urban centers and being able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Clearly its implementation will be challenging.

The framework calls for a “whole of community” approach that will help the ASEAN nations deal with the most daunting challenges, including climate change, an issue that has always been masterfully dodged by the leaders of the region.

As you probably know by now, I believe the regional integration mechanisms have been quite obscure and hard to understand, certainly far from being in the collective imaginary of the people they are supposed to work for.

For example, have you ever heard of the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group on Public Health Emergencies or “simply” ACCWG-PHE? It is a new setup that was created in March to help the ASEAN member nations better coordinate during the pandemic, and it is now entrusted with the implementation of the recovery plan.

Should the citizens of the region just rely on overly complex ASEAN governance “galaxia” to implement the plan or should they ask for better?

With the recovery plan, ASEAN should rethink and simplify its governance, making it more agile and effective. Why not empower the Secretariat, something I will never be tired advocating for?

The answer is simple: Empowering the Secretariat in Jakarta will imply a loss in decision-making power in the capitals, in short a reduction in the sovereignty of the member states.

Yet a successful recovery plan without a much stronger coordination at the center is almost unthinkable. If the plan is an ambitious undertaking, then it is clear that more effective mechanisms are needed for its implementation.

So the leaders must not harbor any realistic illusions about rebooting their economies and promptly face head-on the huge social challenges their people are facing without stronger and more effective “central” governance.

The recovery framework offers a new opportunity, not only in terms of simplifying the way ASEAN works but also in terms of trimming the many overlapping plans and initiatives set through periodic cycles of joint planning.

Perhaps the next five years should be entirely focused on implementing the recovery framework while finding ways to involve and engage the citizens of the region. Without having them informed and aware of the developments in the implementation of the plan, we will never create the foundations of a “common” regional sense of belonging.

At the end of the day this is the Achilles’ heel of ASEAN.

The fact that it is not yet a community of citizens because it was not designed with the purpose to be a people-centered project but instead just a top-down mechanism set in motion by the political elite, a big compromise between nations that are not on the same page in terms of core values.

Unfortunately, human rights and democratic norms will never be at the center of the regional conversation unless pressure will mount from within and from outside the ASEAN.

Real political integration will require surrendering power in a meaningful and real way to better advance the interests of the citizenry. This is hardly a foreseeable outcome for now, but implementing the framework might involuntarily induce citizens to ask for more.

Key questions remain to be answered: Will the usual ASEAN approach work in a post-pandemic world? Will the citizens of the region be satisfied with it or will they be slowly willing to build a sense of common agency for a better common future?

Equally important will be to see if the international community, whose financial support is going to be fundamental to make the recovery plan a reality, will chip in when the usual “ASEAN way” will run the course.

What about the people of the region who will remain excluded from the process of integration and, in many cases, will continue to lack their most fundamental freedoms?

Surely the EU, which recently elevated the ASEAN to a strategic partner, will have to think about how its bet on the bloc will turn out to be truly beneficial to the people of Southeast Asia.

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The author is cofounder of ENGAGE and writer on social inclusion, volunteerism, youth development, regional integration and the SDGs in the context of Asia Pacific.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.