The Covid-19 pandemic may have restricted trade, as borders were partly closed, but it has opened the door to digitalisation, a seminar was told.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the World Bank and the Asean secretariat on Friday co-hosted a virtual seminar titled "Connecting the Connectivities: Synergy through Enhanced Partnership", with panellists from Asean Plus Six countries and the European Union.
Digitalisation, referring to the conversion of the business processes online, was necessary for Asean to build a more stable and resilient productivity network and work on the "soft side", referring to rules and regulations that can help ease trade, the panellists said.
Following the first Master Plan on Asean Connectivity 2025 (MPAC 2025), which was adopted in 2016, the seminar discussed global supply chain connectivity; green and digital connectivity; and smart and sustainable cooperation to promote growth and prosperity in the region, with Asean's partners, to ensure that the growth is inclusive and sustainable.
"Connectivity and integration give everyone access to the opportunities that have arisen from Asean," said Chutintorn Gongsakdi, MFA deputy permanent-secretary. "I truly believe that when we bring connectivity to the [most remote] areas, it's good for [people's] standard of living in so many ways, [including in] education, healthcare."
"But we have to make sure that it is inclusive and ultimately sustainable," he added.
Luxmon Attapich, deputy secretary-general of the Eastern Economic Corridor Office of Thailand, suggested that logistics and supply development should focus on digitalisation rather than physical connectivity.
"We can build physical infrastructure, but it does not help with the connectivity. It does not help to enhance the global supply chain if we do not work on the soft side of things, and because of this important 'soft side', we, at the ECC, have a committee being set up, contributing especially to the seamless logistic issue; rules and regulations," she said.
As connectivity needs to be inclusive, it is necessary to work on how Asean can focus on digitalising local SMEs within their own region, the seminar was told.
On the issue of green and digital connectivity, Prof Fukunari Kimura, Chief Economist from Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia, suggested that digital connectivity should be promoted for its cost-effectiveness, as it significantly helps the efficient usage of energy.
Shige Watanabe, director of Information and Communications Division at Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs' secretariat, said growth should focus on quality and sustainability, inclusiveness and resilience, as well as being environmentally friendly.
To do so, it was necessary to promote quality infrastructure investment, he said.
However, other panellists suggested that digitalised growth depends on each country's level of development, which includes social gaps, digital talents and technology accessibility of MSMEs in the region.
They said it would be challenging to digitalise Asean.
Therefore, the seminar suggested for each member state to develop robust domestic regulations to enable digital connectivity among its citizens and collaborate on MSME's digitalisation.