ASEAN: A new phase of integration and connectivity ?

HONG KONG – For more than a decade, a cornerstone of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) policy has been an incremental push to establish the ASEAN Community. Based on three interconnected pillars — political-security, economic, and people-to-people — the ASEAN Community is meant to usher in a new phase of regional integration and connectivity in Southeast Asia.

What were our experts’ main takeaways from “Summit Season” this past November, and what is the current state and future trajectory of regional integration and connectivity in ASEAN?

Richard Maude, Executive Director, Policy and Senior Fellow

At first glance, the major 2022 Indo-Pacific summits were little more than mirrors reflecting back to participants and observers alike a more contested, divided, and dangerous world. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia Summit (EAS) are burdened by problems their members cannot solve or even agree on, whether that is responding to the murderous rule of Myanmar’s coup leaders, Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, or China’s revisionism. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) agenda is remarkably uncompelling – all the trade action is elsewhere. And even in the G20, today’s stiff global economic headwinds can’t galvanize the group in the way the 2008 global financial crisis did.

Still, a deeper look reveals a more interesting picture. A welcome return to in-person summitry demonstrated the power of personal diplomacy. The Biden-Xi meeting in Bali stole the headlines, but leaders prosecuted an immense amount of valuable bilateral diplomacy right through the season. The summits also revealed the contours of a more multipolar world, with middle powers asserting their autonomy and India playing a helpful role in building consensus around a G20 communique reflecting the “strong condemnation” of “most” members of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Indonesia and Cambodia, chairs of the G20 and EAS respectively, juggled the problem of Russian participation in these forums with more diplomatic finesse than some feared: Ukraine signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Phnom Penh and President Zelensky addressed the G20 (while pointedly calling it the G19), all while Russia looked isolated and diminished.

Finally, while practical outcomes from the summits were modest, some things got done. The G20, for example, delivered in part on Indonesia’s priorities, including pandemic preparedness and financing for the difficult transition to clean energy. And Southeast Asia’s loneliest state, Timor Leste, inched towards ASEAN membership after the group agreed “in principle” to its admission.

ASEAN’s leaders grappled with a host of difficult issues when they met in November, but perhaps none more difficult than the civil war in Myanmar. ASEAN’s plan, through its Five-Point Consensus, called for a cessation of violence, but dialogue “among all parties … to seek a peaceful solution” failed miserably. The 2021 coup leaders’ intransigence and increasingly brutal war on Myanmar’s people had some ASEAN members calling for a re-think ahead of the summit. Malaysia’s then-foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, for example, argued that ASEAN should look at suspending Myanmar’s membership. In the end, there was no such decisive action. Instead, ASEAN leaders reiterated their commitment to the Five-Point Consensus and called for its implementation in full.

There were few bright spots from the summit for those looking for a stronger and more creative ASEAN response, but leaders opened the door to greater engagement of the opposition National Unity Government in 2023, albeit through the special envoy process (as the current chair of ASEAN, Indonesia will appoint the next special envoy). Leaders also hinted they might further limit Myanmar’s representation in ASEAN meetings “if the situation so requires.”

A charitable reading of these outcomes is that they reflect constraining realities: the Myanmar military’s complete indifference to external pressure; the lack of consensus within ASEAN on the right balance of sticks and carrots; China’s backing for the military; and the absence of any strong coordinated international action. ASEAN leaders prefer engagement with the coup leaders, or what passes for engagement, to further isolation. And the idea of Myanmar leaving the bloc is anathema – the first substantive point of the statement from leaders is that “Myanmar remains an integral part of ASEAN.”

Still, ASEAN is doubling down on a failed strategy. The Myanmar military’s brutality and determination to cling to power at all costs mean there is no space for political compromise. Many opposition groups and ethnic armed organizations want not a return to the pre-coup status quo but a new Myanmar entirely. Calling for an “implementation plan,” even one with “practical and measurable indicators,” won’t make the Five-Point Consensus any more workable: its time has passed, and ASEAN eventually will have to confront this reality.

Taylah Bland, Schwarzman Fellow, Center for China Analysis

International environmental law is quite often criticized for its lack of accountability and enforceability. At COP 27, the same critiques were applied but parties made a considerable step in the right direction on the issue of loss and damage. Countries finally agreed to set up a loss and damage fund to help least developed countries pay for the effects of climate change. The stance of the two largest contributors to emissions is particularly noteworthy. The U.S., who was in opposition of the fund’s creation, signed on at the 11th hour, and as for China, it supports the fund but will not contribute monetarily as it deems itself exempt under “developing country” status. The establishment of the fund is a sign that the international community is acknowledging the impacts of climate change and is committed to providing a monetary solution. Despite the fund’s establishment, there are many new questions to be answered. Who pays into the fund? How is it apportioned? What are the funds used for? And who ensures accountability? Optimistically, it would be the U.S. and China Coming together and taking the lead on this, but realistically it seems as though other countries will have to step up to ensure we have progress before COP 28.

Elina Noor, Director, Political-Security Affairs and Deputy Director, Washington, D.C. Office

November 2022 was a month of consequence for Southeast Asia. For two weeks, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand hosted back-to-back meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Group of 20 (G20), and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), respectively. There was a lot that could have gone wrong. After all, it was the first-time multilateral diplomacy made an in-person return to the region after waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. The summits were also held against the backdrop of frosty U.S.-China relations, a bitter war in Europe, and the strains of yet another global split along ideological lines. G20 insiders spoke of very tense meetings in Bali while the ignominy of external interference in ASEAN affairs in 2012 continued to haunt Phnom Penh. And yet, despite it all, Southeast Asia’s hosts kept multilateralism on track. The APEC leaders’ declaration was particularly telling as it deftly recognized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine alongside “other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions.” Of course, the November summits were, themselves, a culmination of the hosts’ intensive efforts at chairing and coordinating hundreds of meetings over the course of at least a year. It may be tempting to dismiss the deluge of declarations that came out of these summits as mere diplomatic rhetoric. But it’s important to remember that the alternative — a breakdown in multilateral diplomacy at a fractious time — would have been a terrible outcome for Southeast Asia, ASEAN, and the larger Asia-Pacific region.

Wendy Cutler, Vice President and Managing Director, Washington, D.C. Office

Thailand had a successful year as the host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), holding the first in-person leaders’ summit in four years and managing to issue a consensus statement despite geopolitical divisions. Sustainability and inclusivity were at the top of the agenda, reflecting the importance of these issues in the Asia-Pacific. Notably, APEC’s 21 member economies adopted the “Bangkok Goals” as a first step to accelerating action on climate and the green economy. The United States now has an opportunity to build off this work during its 2023 host year. The key is to deliver practical and impactful results for the region. This is the best way to convince skeptics that the United States is economically committed to the region for the long haul.

Shay Wester, Director of Asian Economic Affairs and Outreach Director

The U.S. has made solid progress this year toward reengaging with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) following a period of neglect. This culminated in President Biden’s attendance at the ASEAN Summit, which marked the first in-person appearance by a U.S. leader since 2017. At the summit, ASEAN and the U.S. upgraded their relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” something achieved by China last year. This was preceded by a special summit in Washington with ASEAN leaders this past May, the appointment of the first U.S. ambassador to ASEAN in five years, and the expansion of ministerial-level meetings in new areas such as health, transportation, climate, and energy. Southeast Asia’s strategic location and economic dynamism make it a vital component of any effective Indo-Pacific strategy. The United States should seek to build on this momentum to deepen its cooperation with ASEAN in the year ahead.

Blake Berger, Associate Director

One of the highlights out of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit was the organization’s agreement in principle to admit Timor Leste as the bloc’s 11th member. Emblematic of ASEAN’s slow-moving nature, the accession process began over a decade ago and will take another couple of years before the country graduates from observer to full-member status. The initial concerns that delayed Timor Leste’s admission, including its capacity to meet ASEAN obligations, are no longer roadblocks considering that it has diplomatic missions in all 10 member countries and an ASEAN Secretariat in Dili. The first potential new member since 1999 when the bloc admitted Cambodia, the years since have underscored that membership expansion have not led to a more cohesive organization. ASEAN for over the past decade has been mired by internal divisions and an inability to reach consensus and advance key policies. While Timor Leste’s inclusion represents a potential boon for democracy within the organization, worries have not abated on what this means for the ASEAN’s coherence, effectiveness, and ability to remain “neutral” in the face of great power competition, especially as China continues to ramp up its influence through the provision of aid and economic opportunities to Dili.

Kate Logan, Associate Director of Climate and Fellow, Center for China Analysis

The mixed bag of COP27 outcomes illustrates the growing centrality of finance as a prerequisite for further ramping up global climate ambition. The U.S. went into COP expecting to leverage its new domestic climate legislation to compel climate laggards to speed up emissions reductions. But with developing countries no longer able to critique the U.S. for its lack of a credible emissions reduction pathway, longstanding calls for developed countries to pay up on climate finance were thrust into the spotlight. This pressure ultimately impelled rich nations to agree to create a fund to support vulnerable countries struggling with climate “loss and damage” after decades of blocking it.

The unusual timing of the Bali G20 summit, which coincided with the second week of COP27, also played an outsized role in shaping the COP’s outcomes. The U.S. and China only received a green light to resume formal climate talks after the Biden-Xi meeting in Bali, which left little space for U.S.-China bilateral action to substantively influence COP outcomes as in previous years. Meanwhile, the G20’s reaffirmation of the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree Celsius temperature goal prevented efforts by several fossil fuel-dependent economies to water down that target in Sharm el-Sheikh. But proposed text on phasing out all fossil fuels was left out of the G20 statement, effectively killing a push to land it at COP27.

Beyond this, several notable efforts on finance at the G20 established a foundation for future progress. The G20’s endorsement of reforming the international financial architecture to better support climate action paved the way for similar language to be agreed by all parties at COP27. In addition, a group of developed countries led by the U.S. and Japan announced a $20 billion “Just Energy Transition Partnership” deal for Indonesia, which will provide much-needed funds in exchange for commitments from Indonesia to speed up power sector decarbonization. The partnership, which mimics a similar deal for South Africa in 2021, will be another litmus test for whether such country platforms can effectively de-risk finance at the scale needed to decarbonize coal-dependent emerging economies. The interplay between finance and ambition will thus be a key area to watch in 2023, especially ahead of the first Global Stocktake at COP28 which will assess progress under the Paris Agreement. Asia in particular has an opportunity to step up in its critical year of multilateral leadership, with Japan hosting the G7, India hosting the G20, and the United Arab Emirates hosting COP28 on behalf of the Asia-Pacific Group. (Source: Asia Society)