A girl wears a face mask from a "free mask" dispenser

A girl wears a face mask from a "free mask" dispenser set up along a street, amid concerns relating to Covid-19, in Hanoi on August 24, 2020. (Photo: Nhac Nguyen, AFP)

The State of Southeast Asia Survey

ASEAN Enjoys Leadership Gains Amid the Coronavirus

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ASEAN has done pretty well in the regional leadership stakes, according to the 2021 State of Southeast Asia Survey.

Southeast Asians are grappling with domestic challenges resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, yet their views on ASEAN’s leadership remains rosy. 

The latest State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey results released by the ASEAN Studies Centre of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute showed that the pandemic has cast a long shadow over the region. The 1,032 respondents picked the Covid-19 pandemic and two other pandemic-related factors – unemployment and economic recession as well as socio-economic gaps and rising income disparity – as the top three concerns facing Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, traditional regional issues such as terrorism, the deterioration of human rights, and increased military tensions, which were viewed as significant threats last year, were reduced in significance. 

The respondents also viewed that their government must give priority to respond to domestic crises. 49 per cent of them agreed that their governments must offer immediate financial relief and subsidies for those suffering. They also view that long-term efforts such as observing public health measures, investing in early warning systems, and developing research capacity for virus testing and vaccine are equally important.

In viewing top concerns about the regional grouping, 71.5 per cent of the respondents perceived that ASEAN is slow and ineffective in coping with fluid developments. Many also viewed that ASEAN has become an arena and proxy of major power competition (69.1 per cent) and is unable to overcome pandemic challenges (52.4 per cent).

Reflecting on those outlooks, one must be tempted to say that ASEAN member states are preoccupied with domestic challenges caused by the pandemic, thus putting aside efforts to strengthen regional cooperation. During the early stage of the pandemic, ASEAN was the favoured target of criticism for its slow and lack of unity in responding to the health crisis. Even as regional responses like the commitment to keep markets open, development of the regional reserve for medical supplies, and establishment of Covid-19 ASEAN Response Fund came later to offer a concrete pathway to regional recovery, those still lack of a strategic vision. 

The pandemic has exposed ASEAN’s institutional weaknesses and limitations.

Yet, despite those negative sentiments about ASEAN’s way of dealing with the pandemic, the survey highlighted that ASEAN remains a credible actor on various fronts. In the past three years, ASEAN has been perceived as the second most influential economic power in the region after China (though it should be noted that there was a big gap between the first and second places). The vote of share climbed up from 8.3 per cent in 2020 to 9.8 per cent in 2021.

chart of Most Influential Economic Power in Southeast Asia

ASEAN is seen as the third most influential political and strategic power, with 14.6 per cent of the respondents choosing the regional grouping. Even the share of the vote of share is significantly higher than other Indo-Pacific major powers such as Japan (3.2 per cent), Australia (0.4 per cent), Republic of Korea (0.3 per cent), and India (0.2 per cent).

Unlike its economic influence, which garners much recognition among the respondents, ASEAN’s strategic influence still stands in the shadow of China and the United States. Also, the nature of political and security conflicts in ASEAN is much more complicated. The principle of sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs continue to hamper effective collaboration.

ASEAN is perceived as the third most influential leader in championing the free trade agenda, with 20.6 per cent of the respondents subscribing to this view. Quite surprisingly, the share of the vote is quite close to that of the United States (22.5 per cent) and the European Union (22.2 per cent), which ranked the first and second respectively on the list.

Similarly, it ranks third in leadership in maintaining the rules-based order and upholding international law after the European Union and the United States, with 16.9 per cent of respondents having this view.

chart on Supporting the Rules-Based Order

These outlooks offer an alternative way to assess ASEAN. ASEAN has yet to demonstrate its effectiveness. Nonetheless, when ASEAN’s leadership is compared to that of other global actors, it ranks relatively well.

It is still a long bumpy road for the regional grouping to achieve its vision to build a highly integrated region with dynamic and proactive leadership. The pandemic has exposed ASEAN’s institutional weaknesses and limitations. Other long-term challenges such as climate change, economic development gaps, major power rivalries, territorial disputes in the South China Sea will continue to occupy the regional plan and require much more complex setups. As optimism is maintained, ASEAN must demonstrate its relevance, adapt to expectations, and focus on deliverables.

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