Visioning ASEAN Post-2025 Through Storm-Clouds of Change
Elizabeth Buensuceso provides an overview on the process and aspirations of envisioning the ASEAN Community’s Post-2025 Vision.
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2022 published in September 2022. Download the full issue here.
In Southeast Asia, people regard with high respect and expectations the role of traditional midwives in delivering infants and in the rearing of such future members of the community who are in turn anticipated to contribute to the community’s development and success. Their role is made even more crucial when the delivery is fraught with unexpected challenges and grim forebodings. The midwives should not only have the necessary skills and wisdom to bring forth the child but must also be imbued with the passion and vision to accomplish this task. Likewise, the role of the High-Level Task Force on the ASEAN Community’s Post-2025 Vision is regarded as one of gravity and importance.
At the 37th ASEAN Summit of 2020, the Leaders of ASEAN adopted the Ha Noi Declaration on the ASEAN Community’s Post-2025 Vision and tasked the ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) to oversee the overall process of developing the ASEAN Community’s Post-2025 Vision and attendant documents. The High-Level Task Force (HLTF) was thus formed with the mandate to develop the ASEAN Community’s Post-2025 Vision which is the embodiment of the aspirations of the leaders and the people of ASEAN beyond 2025.
Like the entrusted midwives, the HLTF is expected to bring forth a new ASEAN amid a precarious geopolitical, economic, and socio-cultural landscape characterised by a disquieting big-power rivalry, economic upheavals exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the social turmoil brought about by fake news and other earth-shaking digital and environmental challenges in ASEAN’s next twenty years and beyond.
What is the HLTF?
The HLTF is composed of one Eminent Person and one High-Level Representative from each ASEAN Member State (AMS). The current ten Eminent Persons consist of incumbent and former vice ministers. The High-Level Representatives are officials with extensive knowledge and experience in ASEAN’s work. I am joined in the Philippine representation by Ambassador Luis Cruz.
One can sense deep respect for each other in this assemblage of officials. Not only do they have the necessary skills and wisdom on the principles, mechanisms, processes, and issues in ASEAN but they are also devoted to engendering a post-2025 ASEAN that is not a weak imitation of any other organisation but one that is truly responsive to the needs of its people.
The gestation of a Post-2025 ASEAN will take three years, during which the HLTF will continue to consult stakeholders from the various mechanisms of ASEAN, civil society, and ASEAN’s external partners. Malaysia is the Permanent Chair throughout this period, with the current Chair of ASEAN being the Co-Chair, except in 2025 when it is Malaysia’s turn to be the ASEAN Chair. At that time, any member state can co-chair with Malaysia. It is expected that each year, the HLTF will submit to the Leaders milestone accomplishments reached. This year, a report on Strengthening ASEAN’s Capacity and Institutional Effectiveness and a progress report on the core elements of the Post-2025 Vision will be submitted to the ASEAN Summit in November.
The HLTF has conducted three meetings—twice in Jakarta and once in Bangkok. They have extensively discussed their rules of procedure and work plan, the core elements to be included in the blueprints, the modalities in consulting ASEAN’s stakeholders, and institutional and administrative reforms which are needed in ASEAN on its way forward.
There is a growing consensus among HLTF representatives to retain the current Community pillars which they believe have remained functional in the last fifty-plus years of ASEAN’s existence. However, they also agree that adding one or two pillars to address institutional gaps and considering emerging megatrends would also be beneficial as ASEAN continues to grow in importance and expands its areas of cooperation.
Among the megatrends being looked into and which are likely to extend their impact include the following: US-China rivalry, AUKUS (a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK, and the US), sub-regional developments such as the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA), pandemic and public health emergencies, supply chain disruptions and increased protectionism, digital technologies, UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and climate change, among others.
Sustaining ASEAN Centrality
Foremost in the minds of the HLTF midwives is the enhancement of ASEAN centrality in the face of cataclysmic change and geo-political competition. Although centrality means many things to different people, there is a common understanding that it entails keeping the ASEAN agenda at the centre of discussions, and pursued through ASEAN-led mechanisms following ASEAN principles and processes. As recounted in my book on ASEAN Centrality, ASEAN should not be affected by the winds of external forces but by its mission to bring benefits to its people.
ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Plus Three (APT), and ASEAN Plus One must insist on their sustainability and relevance in the face of tightening geopolitical competitions such as the Indo-Pacific strategies of major powers, increasing tensions in the South China Sea and conflict in other parts of the world. ASEAN must also address with a united voice the instability and strife in its own backyard such as the perturbing developments in Myanmar.
A Call for Institutional Reforms
While treading with caution so as not to upset the ASEAN Way of diplomatic practice, some countries, particularly Indonesia and the Philippines, have fired the initial salvo calling for institutional reform to address the current inertia in building a true ASEAN Community. This would mean progressive actions for reforming the ASEAN Secretariat, the ASEAN Coordinating Council, and the ASEAN Community Councils, including reinventions of the practice of ASEAN principles like non-interference and consensus in decision-making. I personally believe that some updating of the ASEAN Charter would be able to remedy the institutional gaps identified over the years of ASEAN’s existence. For example, Chapter IV, Article 14 of the Charter has not recognised the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) as the human rights body of ASEAN.
One of the oft-repeated drawbacks in ASEAN is the inadequacy of institutional provisions to address cross-pillar and cross-sectoral issues. Issues such as gender mainstreaming, climate change, response to pandemics and health emergencies, connectivity, and many others entail close coordination among the community pillars and sectors.
Thus, another example of institutional reform to address this gap is a change in the composition of the ASEAN Coordinating Council which is currently composed only of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, or if this is not possible, the merging of the ASEAN Community Councils of the APSC, AEC and ASCC pillars into one body. In this way, cross-pillar issues which have otherwise been siloed can be jointly discussed by the officials of all the pillars.
The HLTF has also identified the initial list of core elements to be covered by the Blueprints which include issues such as preventing and countering the rise of radicalisation, violent extremism and terrorism, sustainability and climate change, embracing the 4th industrial revolution, strengthening financial and social protection, empowering regional public health capacity, investing in human capital development, ensuring energy, food and water security, as well as advancing the Women Peace and Security (WPS) and the Youth, Peace and Security agendas.
Moving Forward: Balancing National and Regional Aspirations
Regionalism does not need to conflict with national interests. States join regional organisations to further their national interests in the hope that the voices of many would enhance the voice of one. Otherwise, there is no point in joining them. ASEAN remains to be the only significant and viable organisation for the region today, despite many criticisms of its decision-making process.
However, this is not to say that it will remain immutable as it faces cataclysmic forces in the years to come. Already, there are calls to review the decision-making process particularly in addressing emergencies that affect the peace and stability, and credibility of ASEAN. The Philippines is prepared to respond to this call. How far this openness to change will go remains to be seen as the work of the HLTF progresses.
Elizabeth Buensuceso is currently the Eminent Person of the Philippines to the High-Level Task Force on the Post-2025 ASEAN Community Vision and former Undersecretary (Vice Minister) of the Department of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the High-Level Task Force.