Asean must walk the walk
Today, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) are set to "meet" at a virtual summit, a format the grouping adopted in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic which has led to enormous challenges but also an opportunity.
This year marks the half-way point of the grouping's 10-year journey toward the realisation of the Asean Community Vision 2025, which envisaged deeper integration after the agreement to establish the Asean Community back in 2015. It's the ideal time for Asean, an organisation with 10 members, namely Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, to assess their work in achieving those aspirations. The pandemic as well as the economic slump may force Asean leaders to look inwards, focusing on their own crisis, over the grouping's mission. But at the same time, some optimists believe the pandemic gives Asean an opportunity to work as a group to escalate cooperation under the human security framework.
Today's summit will see the 10 Asean leaders under Vietnam as the chair further their plans for a Covid-19 response fund, a proposal by Thailand which was agreed upon when they attended the Asean +3 meeting with key strategic partners, namely China, Japan and South Korea last April. Initially, the grouping is to pitch in to the fund, which was set up with seed money, a 10% deduction from the Asean Development Fund and other funds and move toward a post-Covid-19 recovery plan. The longer-term objective is to enhance the grouping's capacity to deal with health emergency responses through the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management, all to improve the livelihoods of its 654-million-strong population.
In fact, the grouping has won accolades for eliminating tariff barriers which have come down close to zero through the Asean Trade in Goods Agreement, while progress has been made regarding the liberalisation of services under the Asean Framework Agreement on Services that is being concluded, among many other matters.
However, there is a room for improvement when it comes to non-tariff barriers (NTBs) which significantly hinder intra-regional trade among Asean members. The issue remains a major challenge for the grouping to overcome and promote cooperation that is based on the give-and-take principle under a multilateral framework and to achieve higher goals along with this year's theme of "Cohesive and Responsive Asean".
Some tough issues exist that hinder the grouping's efforts to strengthen integration and it is necessary that Asean leaders make efforts to address them. Those issues include the South China Sea, the Rakhine crisis and stranded Rohingya refugees, as well as irregular migration in the Indian Ocean. One important challenge is to maintain a balance in the Sino-US conflict.
Asean should also open itself up to input from civic groups advocating human rights especially for migrant workers who have contributed to the region's development and prosperity over the past decades. The leaders should lay foundations for better protection for such workers who were hit very hard by the Covid-19 crisis, many of whom were forced to return jobless and penniless to their homelands. Some groundwork must be prepared for the post-pandemic period when these migrant workers return.
To achieve their lofty goals, Asean leaders must go beyond diplomatic rhetoric, transform it into action and ensure sustainability.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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