Italy-ASEAN: in Manila the eighth High Level Dialogue

Back in November is the High Level Dialogue on ASEAN Italy Economic Relations, the initiative that The European House - Ambrosetti and the Associazione Italia ASEAN have been implementing since 2016

Di Lorenzo Tavazzi, The European House – Ambrosetti

The landmark event for bilateral relations between Italy and ASEAN countries is back: the High Level Dialogue on ASEAN Italy Economic Relations, the initiative that The European House - Ambrosetti and the Associazione Italia ASEAN have been carrying out since 2016 and this year reaches its eighth edition.

Each year the High Level Dialogue is hosted by an ASEAN country: this year it will take place in Manila, Philippines, at the Dusit Thani Hotel, on Tuesday, November 5 and Wednesday, November 6, 2024, with the support of the Philippine government, through the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), as co-organizer of the event.

The Dialogue, since its first edition in 2017 in Indonesia, and subsequent editions in Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand, along with two digital editions in 2020 and 2021, has brought together more than 3,500 presidents, CEOs, and government and institutional leaders from ASEAN countries and Italy. The 2023 edition alone, held in Bangkok, was attended by more than 450 high-profile delegates.

This year's Dialogue will address a number of priority issues for the development of Italy-ASEAN relations with a dual character in partnership opportunities between Italian companies and their counterparts in Southeast Asia. These include: the supply chain of critical raw materials for the strategic sectors of the future, artificial intelligence and digital innovation, the role of the blue economy for economic cooperation, the evolution of the creative industry, opportunities for technological and industrial collaborations in space, defense and high-tech manufacturing, financing and services to support the development of sustainable businesses and infrastructure. 

Within this framework, the specificities and opportunities offered by the Philippines, with which Italy celebrated 75 years of bilateral relations in 2022, will also be explored.

Participation in the High Level Dialogue is free and by invitation only. 

To register for the event: Registration

To get more information about previous editions of the event: High Level Dialogue website

Thailand and Malaysia towards joining BRICS

We publish here an excerpt from an article by Maria Siow published in the South China Morning Post

The prospect of Southeast Asian countries joining BRICS has sparked heated debate among analysts: supporters argue that membership could unlock lucrative trade and geopolitical opportunities, while skeptics warn that it risks dragging the countries into the orbit of China and Russia and further eroding regional unity. Thailand and Malaysia have announced in recent weeks that they will apply to join the platform, following in the footsteps of Laos and Myanmar, which declared their interest last year. Contrary to fears that BRICS membership will erode ASEAN's unity and centrality, several Asian analysts believe the Association has the flexibility and resilience to maintain its relevance to member states. Many ASEAN members also belong to other organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Indian Ocean Association and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Other multilateral institutions to which Asean members already belong are the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. "BRICS membership will provide access to a new source of financing for the many development needs of countries in the Southeast Asian region," said Jayant Menon, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, referring to the New Development Bank established in 2015 by the BRICS countries. Indonesia and Vietnam also said they are considering the benefits of BRICS membership. Joining the group of emerging economies could provide better access to lucrative markets, increased foreign investment, and opportunities for collaboration on infrastructure projects. BRICS membership can also be seen as a strategic move to diversify economic partnerships and reduce dependence on Western-led financial institutions. The move, if managed effectively, could strengthen Southeast Asia's voice and influence in global affairs. Indonesia also aims to join the OECD within three years, as reiterated by the country's coordinating economy minister in May after the organization's secretary-general visited Jakarta and met with President Joko Widodo. According to OECD projections, Indonesia's gross domestic product will reach $10.5 trillion by 2050, making it one of the largest economies along with China, the United States and India.

Friends of all, enlisted by none

Vladimir Putin's recent visit was not a choice for Vietnam, but a necessity for its diplomatic line

Editorial by Lorenzo Lamperti

There is often an "exclusive" view of diplomatic relations in the West. Almost as if maintaining or pursuing better relations with one or the other relationship means making a field choice. A black-and-white view that does not help to understand the perspective of many emerging countries, the so-called "Global South." And particularly Southeast Asia, a region that is the litmus test of the desire for multipolarity and multilateralism. A desire rooted deep in ASEAN's approach and reflected, while maintaining different traits and specificities, in its member states. The one who perhaps most embodies this posture is Vietnam, with its "bamboo diplomacy." The idea behind it: be a friend to all, enemy to none. Just like the bamboos, Vietnam believes that with this approach it can grow flexibly but firmly. A belief that has proven correct so far. Hanoi has managed to maintain close political-defensive ties with Russia and economic ties with China. But it has also successfully pursued a path of deepening relations with other Asian neighbors and with the West. Over the course of a few years, Vietnam has elevated bilateral relations with Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines. But it has also signed two important free trade agreements with the European Union and the United Kingdom. Not only that. During its chairmanship of ASEAN, the RCEP, a trade agreement that brings together most of the Asia-Pacific countries, was also signed. When Joe Biden headlined a historic visit to the Vietnamese capital last September, Hanoi also took the partnership with its old rival to the highest level. Further deepening the already thriving trade relationship-Vietnam is increasingly a regional epicenter of investment and a global manufacturing hub. A process that in recent times increasingly involves major international tech giants. All this, however, does not mean that Hanoi has made or is willing to make a field choice. The U.S. president's visit was not a prelude to "enlisting" Vietnam in an anti-Russian or anti-Chinese perspective, as some may have thought given the criticism of Vladimir Putin's recent trip to the country. For Vietnam, receiving the Russian president was not a choice but a necessity to continue to protect its international relations, providing some reassurance to the historic partner after the two steps in the direction of Washington. Relations with Moscow, however, have not prevented the Vietnamese government from showing closeness to Ukraine as well. In the past two years, the PM has met twice with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and Hanoi has also sent humanitarian aid to Kiev. All while trying as always to foster dialogue and political resolution of the conflict. 

Between the folds of the Funan Techo

Everything you need to know about the canal under construction in Cambodia. A key commercial infrastructure as well

By Francesco Mattogno

For the past couple of months in Cambodia, Vietnam, and a bit in all the states crossed by the Mekong River, there has been a lot of talk about a canal that does not yet exist, except on paper. Officially it is called the Tonle Bassac Navigation Road and Logistics System Project, but to everyone it is simply the "Funan Techo." In the Cambodian government's intentions, the canal will connect the port on the Mekong River in the capital Phnom Penh to the port in Kampot, a city overlooking the Gulf of Thailand (or Gulf of Siam), and thus the sea.

The Funan Techo will be 5.4 meters deep, 100 meters wide, 180 kilometers long, consist of two lanes, and its construction will be fully financed by China. Beijing will invest $1.7 billion on the project, entrusted to the state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC). A subsidiary of CRBC, China Harbour Engineering, has also entered into an agreement with a local developer to help build the Kampot Port (estimated to cost $1.5 billion), right where the Funan Techo will flow. Construction on the canal is expected to start by the end of 2024 and take a maximum of four years, Phnom Penh says.

The strong Chinese presence within the project is just one reason why it is being much discussed. The Funan Techo is designed to reduce Cambodia's logistical dependence on Vietnam, through which all Cambodian goods transported by ship on the Mekong for international trade are forced to pass. It is a matter of geography: the river, one of the largest and most important in the world, flows throughout Cambodia but before flowing into the sea it crosses Vietnamese territory for more than a hundred kilometers.

This condition gives Vietnam some political and economic leverage over Cambodia, whose companies are forced to bear high transportation costs (with consequences for the competitiveness of its exports) and live with the perennial risk of a naval blockade. It has already happened 30 years ago, in 1994, when at a time of high tension between the two countries Hanoi decided to stop Cambodian boats from sailing along the Vietnamese section of the Mekong for months. Today, relations between Cambodia and Vietnam are good, but although in 2009 the two neighbors also signed a treaty for freedom of navigation on the river, Phnom Penh has never stopped looking for an alternative. And here it is.

It is not just a matter of economic security. The Funan Techo is also a vehicle to foment nationalism and legitimize the new course of Prime Minister Hun Manet, who in August replaced his father Hun Sen, who remained in power for 38 years. This is evidenced by the very name given to the channel. "Funan" recalls the ancient Funan Kingdom (born in the first centuries A.D.), which is believed to be a precursor to the Khmer Empire, while "Techo" is a term that is part of Hun Sen's honorary title. According to Cambodian analyst Chhengpor Aun, with the construction of the canal Phnom Penh will try to symbolically restore the loss of the Mekong Delta, which France formally handed over to Vietnam in 1949 during its colonial rule.

For weeks the Cambodian government has continued to list the benefits of building the canal, which will "facilitate irrigation of the land" and result in the creation of "10,000 jobs." Phnom Penh estimates that costs for shipping goods will be reduced by 30 percent, and shipments will be more agile and faster. However, it is too early to say how much these projections will be reflected in reality. As several experts have pointed out, for example, the depth of the canal will not allow too heavy cargo to be transported, and this means that many products will equally have to pass through Vietnam (which, in any case, immediately complained about the project). 

Beyond the economic issues of whether or not it is convenient for Cambodia to build it, the Funan Techo presents environmental issues. The fear is that the canal, with its very high embankments, will impede natural flooding of the plains surrounding the Mekong (crucial for the agricultural sector), alter the water flows of other tributaries, and increase the salinity of soils. Phnom Penh has pledged to conduct all relevant environmental impact assessments with "48 international experts."

Modi wants India and ASEAN closer together

Among the Indian PM's third term goals is to strengthen relations with Southeast Asia

Can Narendra Modi's third term as prime minister bring India and ASEAN closer together? A commentary by Syed Munir Khasru, published in the South China Morning Post, wonders. India's "Act East" policy is poised for recalibration. New Delhi's economic and strategic engagement with Southeast Asia soared during its first two terms, albeit with some shortcomings that require course correction. Modi may now reinvigorate this key foreign policy as India seeks to establish a stronger presence in the Indo-Pacific. On the economic front, trade and investment ties with Southeast Asian countries have received a major boost, with annual bilateral trade soaring from about $80 billion in 2014 to more than $110 billion by 2021-22. However, the existing trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-the Asean-India Free Trade Area-is seen as strongly favoring the Asean side, frustrating India. India's exports to Southeast Asia increased moderately in FY2023 to $44 billion from $42.3 billion in the previous year. Meanwhile, imports from ASEAN countries increased at a faster pace, from $68 billion to $87.6 billion, resulting in a substantial trade deficit of $43.6 billion for India. The need to address the trade imbalance is even more urgent considering that in 2011 the trade deficit was only $5 billion. But the Modi government has not seized all opportunities for economic rapprochement with ASEAN countries due to reluctance to undertake market reforms and tariff liberalization. On the strategic front, India's efforts under the Act East policy helped bring seven Asean members into the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, an initiative to strengthen economic cooperation between the two regions. Participation in these complementary Indo-Pacific strategies allows for greater coordination of respective interests in this strategically vital region. Initiatives involving connectivity, such as the $484 million Kaladan multimodal transport project linking India to Myanmar and the trilateral India-Myanmar-Thailand highway, are examples of what collaboration between ASEAN and India can achieve in this area.

Nuclear weapons in Asia: the ASEAN approach

Southeast Asian countries are the most active and willing to avoid nuclear weapons proliferation in the region

By Francesca Leva

At a United Nations speech delivered last March, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared that the risk of a nuclear war is at “its highest point in decades” and that nuclear weapons are “growing in power, range, and stealth,” adding that “an accidental launch is one mistake, one miscalculation, one rash act away.”

Asia makes no exception: there, nuclear weapons had a profound influence on both public health and the environment, resulting in the displacement of people and hindering development, education, cultural preservation, and economic stability.

Nuclear weapons first arrived in Asia in 1945 with the tragic events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A few years later, the URSS also announced its nuclear weapons programs: during the Cold War, from 1950 to the 1990s, the MAD – “Mutual Assured Destruction” – phrase was used to describe the nuclear build-up phase between the US and the URSS. As a result, in 1957, the UN established the IAEA - International Atomic Energy Agency - recognizing the need for peaceful development of nuclear power. In 1968 the UN also adopted the NPT – Non-proliferation Treaty -, whereby only the five nuclear States of the time, the US, China, Russia, the UK, and France, were allowed to possess nuclear weapons, but would also agree to the peaceful application of nuclear technology and the reduction of their nuclear arsenals. However, several non-signatory countries of the NPT started to develop nuclear weapons on their own: among them India, Pakistan, and Israel. As a matter of fact, in 1988, India detonated three bombs close to the border with Pakistan, an action that was immediately followed by Islamabad’s nuclear tests.

What seems to be the pattern is that when a country develops a nuclear weapon, its threatened neighbors and enemies will also start nuclear testing, both for self-preservation and national pride. This dilemma poses a concrete threat to Asia, where China, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and the Russian Federation are all nuclear countries.

One of the main flashpoints in Asia is the so-called “nuclear triangle,” constituted by China, India, and Pakistan. In this case, the risk is ignited by regional competition, domestic situations and tech developments. The development of Pakistan’s full-spectrum deterrence has, in fact, led to India’s development of a preemptive counterforce nuclear system. This nuclear threat is further enhanced by US-China competition. While Beijing tries to match Washington’s nuclear capabilities, India is also incentivized to maximize its nuclear arsenal, shifting away from its traditional “no-first-use policy.” Pakistan's devolving domestic situation, as well as the increasing Pakistan–India competition, add to the risk of accidental use, inadvertent escalation, and nuclear brinkmanship. 

A further potential flashpoint is constituted by North Korea and South Korea; the risk is not only the one of a war between Seoul and Pyongyang but also the fact that both South Korea and Japan might feel pressed to develop their own nuclear arsenals. Finally, other possible tension areas are in the South-China Sea, where regional competition as well as national priorities collide.

In 1995, the ASEAN member States signed the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone - SEANWFZ, also known as the Bangkok Treaty – which was originally devised to reaffirm the importance of the NPT and to establish a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ). There are currently five NWFZs in the world, and they all represent a regional approach to strengthening nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. In the designated areas covered by the NWFZ treaties, it is explicitly prohibited to engage in activities related to the acquisition, possession, placement, testing, and utilization of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the States that have ratified these treaties are actively working towards establishing legally binding agreements to ensure that nuclear-armed nations refrain from deploying nuclear weapons against any of the countries within these zones.

However, there has been growing preoccupation and skepticism among the NPT signatory countries, as the five NPT states have continued to develop their own nuclear arsenals; the NPT was unable to integrate non-signatory countries – especially India, Pakistan, and Israel – and it was also ineffective in bringing back North Korea. As a consequence, in 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was crafted to reinforce the NPT and signed by all ASEAN countries besides Singapore. Although the outcome of these measures remains uncertain, it is evident that the nuclear threat represents an unacceptable risk for Asian countries, especially considering the number, the density, and the proximity of urban and inhabited areas.

Queerness in Southeast Asian Cinema

Queer cinema in the region is vibrant and prolific, intersecting the representation of the Lgbtqia+ community with local traditions of sexual and gender fluidity

Article by Agnese Ranaldi

“Today I ask the village chief or the authority to recognize me. Even though I am a lesbian, I also have a heart. I love all the Khmer people. I claim my rights not to be discriminated against, and this also applies to the next generation.” Speaking is Soth Yun, one of the main characters in Two girls against the rain, a 2012 short film directed by Sopheak Sao.

Two women have known each other since the Khmer Rouge days in the 1970s. They have been together ever since. Many years later, over-50s Soth Yun and Sem Eang recount their lives in a society that has made it difficult to accommodate them. They have defied hetero-patriarchal conventions and any prejudice with respect to their ability to support themselves and feed their families. But they recount the frustration of still having to wait for official recognition from village authorities. Their story, told in a 10-minute short film and set in Cambodia, speaks for many others. Lgbtqia+ cinema in Southeast Asia highlights the injustices that stem from the lack of recognition of queer couples throughout the region.

From the 1950s to the present

The experience of the Lgbtqia+ community is a story of struggles for visibility. Amid authoritarian regimes, censorship, and social stigmas embedded in some cultures, film has been one of the most effective expressions for the queer battle in the region. Where words are not enough, images come in. Cinemas, documentaries, series, and short films have become the tool for questioning the normativity associated with sex and gender, from the first, tentative openings that occurred in the second half of the 20th century, to the last few decades, when films have begun to shed light on the link between queerness and the region's history.

There are four factors that explain the recent increase in films on the subject, according to Atit Pongpanit and Ben Murtagh. The authors of the article Emergent queer identities in 20th century films from Southeast Asia argue that the past few years have created an environment in which grassroots claims of queer communities have found space even in the most restrictive countries. Widespread access to digital technologies, the growth of platforms such as Youtube and Vimeo, an increase in public discourse on the topic through festivals such as Myanmar's “&Proud” Yangon Lgbt Film Festival (no longer active since the coup of 2021), or Indonesia's Q! Film Festival; and finally a widespread tendency to deconstruct normative sexuality and gender discourses throughout Asia, despite resistance from some governments.

The case of the Philippines
The Philippines, for example, despite an authoritarian political culture and rigid religious traditions, has a long history of films that address these issues, in part because they graft well into a society to which sexual and gender fluidity are no strangers. Starting with the Philippine film Tubog sa Ginto (“Gold Plated”) directed by Lino Brocka and considered one of the cornerstones of queer cinema throughout Southeast Asia.

Bakla's is also a story of power and self-determination. In the Tagalog language, spoken in the Philippines, bakla denotes the practice of male cross-dressing. “It is an identity built on performative cultural practice rather than sexuality,” said Filipino-born Australian filmmaker Vonne Patiag in an article in the Guardian. In one of her short films, Tomgirl, she chronicles the life of a young Filipino man in Western Sydney who receives a crash course on his culture of origin, at which his uncle reveals to him that he observes the bakla tradition.

Quella dei bakla è anche una storia di potere e autodeterminazione. Nella lingua tagalog, parlata nelle filippine, bakla indica la pratica del cross-dressing maschile. “Si tratta di un’identità costruita sulla pratica culturale performativa più che sulla sessualità”, ha detto il regista australiano di origini filippine Vonne Patiag in un articolo apparso sul Guardian. In uno dei suoi cortometraggi, Tomgirl, racconta la vita di un giovane filippino di Western Sydney che riceve un corso intensivo sulla cultura di origine, in occasione del quale suo zio gli rivela di osservare la tradizione bakla

“They were renowned as community leaders, seen as the traditional rulers who transcended the duality of man and woman,” Patiag explains, “Many of the early accounts of the Spanish colonizers referred to mystical entities who were ‘more man than man and more woman than woman.’ Later I discovered that many people problematically translate bakla as 'gay' in English. Being a non-gender identity, the word does not directly correspond to the Western nomenclature of Lgbtqia+ identities, placing it somewhere between gay, trans and queer. When Filipinos moved to countries such as Australia and the United States, baklas were mislabeled as part of Western gay culture and quickly sexualized.” Patiag hopes that through Tomgirl, this culture can be made known and can inspire a more fluid interpretation of gender boundaries.

Un altro segno della vivace proliferazione di film sul tema nel Sud-Est asiatico, è il Queer East film festival di Londra. Si tratta della rassegna di film provenienti dall’Asia orientale e sudorientale e dalle comunità della sua diaspora. Presenta opere cinematografiche, ma anche arti dal vivo e icone del movimento Lgbtqia+. Per i suoi organizzatori, lo scopo è esplorare “cosa significhi essere queer e asiatici oggi”. “Gli eventi globali degli ultimi anni ci hanno ricordato ancora una volta che una rappresentazione razziale e sessuale equa e autentica è fondamentale per la nostra società – si legge sul sito del Queer Festival. – La ricchezza del patrimonio asiatico e queer costituisce una parte vitale dell’identità di questo Paese”. Attraverso un programma diversificato, il festival mira ad amplificare le voci delle comunità asiatiche e a sfidare le normatività eteropatriarcale. L’obiettivo? Eliminare le etichette e gli stereotipi associati alle rappresentazioni asiatiche queer.

ASEAN centrality in a changing world

We publish here an excerpt from Kavi Chongkittavorn's analysis, which appeared in the Bangkok Post

What is ASEAN centrality? It may have different meanings for different people, but in general it can be seen as a regional framework that supports ASEAN's role as a dominant regional platform to overcome common challenges and engage with external powers. Citizens of the ASEAN community know its intrinsic value, as it has kept the region stable and resilient over the more than five decades of its existence. In a rapidly changing world, the question is often asked whether the concept of ASEAN centrality needs to be redefined. In the 1990s, ASEAN was perceived as an “engine” of regional cooperation. The question was whether it was only an engine and whether the passengers (member states) set the direction. Regardless of the answer, ASEAN continued to believe that it was in the driver's seat, helping to guide regional processes. As ASEAN entered the 21st century, the bloc became a “central hub,” similar to an airport that could provide navigation and protection services. 

Today, ASEAN's centrality is recognized for its role in driving the region's high economic growth. But what form will ASEAN centrality take in the next 20 years? In the not-too-distant future, the ASEAN region is expected to become the third most populous region in the world and the fourth largest economy, with a rapidly growing middle class. In addition, with its diversity and good connectivity, the region will become an innovative society. 

ASEAN could and should be bolder in the future, becoming a pioneer in green transformation, digital connectivity, and innovative economy. ASEAN can also be an example to transform contention and confrontation in the South China Sea into cooperation and connectivity. In addition, ASEAN can be an example of how to successfully address multiple crises, such as climate change and water and food security in the Mekong region, thereby providing solutions to other regions. 

ASEAN's centrality has already gained ground as major powers, particularly the United States, China, and the European Union, continue to court ASEAN. With its convening and persuasive power, ASEAN Centrality 2.0 can go global and create a milestone, especially in efforts to build a better and peaceful world.

ASEAN and Japan united for sustainability

Southeast Asian countries strengthen cooperation on environment and technological innovation. A very important development

By Walter Minutella

In a world rapidly evolving toward sustainability and technological sophistication, ASEAN and Japan have undertaken several collaborative initiatives aimed at promoting economic growth, environmental sustainability and technological innovation. 

During a significant visit to Hekinan City, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, Secretary General of ASEAN, explored the Hekinan Thermoelectric Power Plant and the Ammonia-Based Thermal Fuel construction site operated by Japan's Energy for a New Era, Inc. (JERA). Accompanied by JERA President and Director Hisahide Okuda, Dr. Kao closely observed the facility's innovative projects, which include a pioneering demonstration aimed at achieving zero carbon emissions through co-firing coal and ammonia. This technology could make the Hekinan plant the first large-scale plant in the world to use this solution, marking a significant step toward carbon neutrality.

ASEAN's commitment to partner with Japan in such green initiatives underscores a shared vision for a sustainable future. Diversifying energy sources to include ammonia and hydrogen is a critical component of this strategy, reflecting a concerted effort to reduce carbon footprints while ensuring stable electricity supplies to regions such as Chubu and beyond.

The strategy proposed by Japan and ASEAN focuses on several key areas to strengthen their competitiveness in the electric vehicle market. First, a significant effort is devoted to staff training, with Japan planning to allocate 140 billion yen (about $900 million) to improve workers' technical skills in digital technologies at factories and component suppliers. This investment aims to enhance the efficiency and quality of the workforce, contributing to the sustainability of production.

Another key area of the strategy is the decarbonization of production. Using advanced Japanese technologies, carbon dioxide emissions will be measured and solutions for switching to renewable energy sources in production processes will be promoted. This initiative is in line with global efforts to mitigate climate change and reduce the industrial carbon footprint.

The supply of essential mineral resources for electric vehicle batteries is another pillar of the strategy. Joint efforts will focus on obtaining rare materials and researching recycling methods, thus ensuring a stable and sustainable supply of crucial components.

Similarly, investment in next-generation fields, such as biofuels, is also an additional area of focus. Special attention will be paid to the development of biofuels derived from used cooking oil, an initiative that not only diversifies energy sources but also supports the transformation of waste into energy resources.

Finally, a comprehensive information campaign is planned to raise consumer awareness of the environmentally friendly characteristics of vehicles produced in ASEAN. This effort aims to increase exports by leveraging international consumers' attention to sustainable practices and products.

On the same day, Dr. Kao visited DENSO Corporation's state-of-the-art facilities in Aniyo City, Japan. This visit was instrumental in showcasing DENSO's recent advances in electric vehicle technology, autonomous driving systems, and sustainable manufacturing practices. The visit highlighted the potential for collaboration between ASEAN and Japan in addressing evolving challenges in the automotive industry, particularly in environmental sustainability and technological innovation.

During the visit, discussions were held on potential partnerships and collaborations aimed at improving sustainability and technological advances in the automotive sector. This aligns with broader ASEAN-Japan initiatives to promote greener and more efficient automotive solutions in the face of growing environmental concerns.

The urgency of this joint strategy also stems from the rapid expansion of Chinese electric vehicle manufacturers in Southeast Asia, which are rapidly gaining ground. As a result, Japan and ASEAN are developing a joint strategy to strengthen their competitiveness in order to succeed in countering China's dominance of the industry through enhanced cooperation in automobile production and sales in the region.

For example, subsidies and tax breaks in Thailand have allowed Chinese companies such as BYD to dominate the market, with 85 percent of EVs sold in Thailand last year being Chinese-made. The joint strategy between ASEAN and Japan aims to regain market share by leveraging Japanese technological know-how and manufacturing capabilities in ASEAN countries.

Currently, ASEAN is home to production facilities of several large Japanese automakers, including Toyota Motor and Honda Motor. These manufacturers assemble more than three million vehicles a year in ASEAN countries, accounting for 80 percent of the region's total automotive production. The proposed joint strategy is expected to be formalized during the next meeting between the economic ministers of Japan and ASEAN in September.

In addition to economic ties, educational programs, cultural events and the popularity of Japanese entertainment have fostered deeper people-to-people connections. Japanese companies are increasingly hiring Southeast Asian talent, reflecting a more integrated and mutually beneficial relationship.

In recent years, ASEAN and Japan have collaborated on regional stability and economic integration initiatives, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Japan's discreet and consensual approach to diplomacy has facilitated these collaborations, ensuring that the interests of Southeast Asian nations are adequately represented. 

The ASEAN-Japan partnership is a testament to the power of collaboration in addressing global challenges. From pioneering carbon neutrality projects to countering the dominance of Chinese electric vehicles, this alliance is poised to drive significant advances in sustainability and technological innovation. By continuing to invest in education, mutual growth, and regional stability, ASEAN and Japan can forge an economically prosperous, ecologically sustainable, and technologically advanced future.

Tech, why people are investing in ASEAN

Gregory B. Poling and Japhet Quitzon's analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies

The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) constitute the fastest growing online market in the world, with 125,000 new Internet users per day. U.S. tech giants are aware of the strategic importance of Southeast Asia and are strengthening their presence in the region with large investments pledged by Apple, Microsoft and Amazon in recent weeks. 

In mid-April, Apple CEO Tim Cook made a trip to Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore. He announced a planned $250 million expansion of the company's Singapore campus, which will reportedly focus on artificial intelligence. Cook also said Apple plans to increase investment in Vietnam and explore manufacturing opportunities in Indonesia.

Shortly thereafter, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella visited Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand from April 30 to May 2. On his first stop in Jakarta, he announced plans to invest $1.7 billion over four years in cloud and AI architectures in Indonesia, the largest investment in the company's 29 years in the country. The next day he said Microsoft will open its first data center in Thailand, based on an agreement with the Thai government to provide cloud and AI infrastructure. 

Nadella then traveled to Malaysia, where he announced plans to invest $2.2 billion in cloud computing and artificial intelligence infrastructure over the next four years. Microsoft will work with the Malaysian government to enhance its cybersecurity capabilities and provide artificial intelligence training to 200,000 people in the country. Nadella also said Microsoft is committed to providing artificial intelligence skills training to 2.5 million people throughout the region, particularly in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Finally, on May 7, Amazon Web Services (AWS) committed $9 billion to expand its cloud infrastructure in Singapore. The investments will go toward building, operating and maintaining data centers in the city-state over the next five years. Like Microsoft, AWS is working with the Singapore government to create a program for 5,000 people a year to expand research and development capabilities.

U.S. technology companies are betting big on the future digital economies of Southeast Asia. In doing so, they will boost regional economies and their own profits. They will also seek to shape rules on data governance and AI as regional governments grapple with the digital future, including competing visions championed by China, Europe and the United States.

ASEAN and Taiwan in the Lai era

The inauguration of new President Lai Ching-te in Taipei and the possible economic and political repercussions in Southeast Asia

By Luca Menghini

On May 20, Lai Ching-te will officially become the new President of Taiwan. This event is significant not only for the island but also for the geopolitical context of the entire Southeast Asia. Taiwan is indeed preparing for a significant change with the inauguration of a leader from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), known for its leanings towards the island's independence from China. Lai secured 40.1% of the votes, surpassing candidates from the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Taiwan People's Party (TPP). Despite the DPP's victory, the party lost control of the legislative assembly, forcing the new president to seek broader consensus which will lead him to moderate his more extreme policies.

The loss of the parliamentary majority could be seen by ASEAN as an element of stability, as it might mitigate Lai's policies, thus reducing tensions in the Taiwan Strait. This area is of vital strategic importance, being a crucial maritime corridor for global trade. ASEAN, which traditionally follows a policy of non-interference and consensus, reacted cautiously to Lai's election. The member countries, located in a region crossed by various trade routes and spheres of influence of major powers, strive to maintain a balance to avoid conflicts. The stability of the strait is essential not only for regional security but also for the global economy.

During the period leading up to the elections, tensions between Taiwan and China grew, especially during the presidency of Tsai Ing-wen, who sought to strengthen ties with the United States. China responded by increasing military and diplomatic pressure on the island, which it considers a rebel province to be reunified in the future. While the reaction of ASEAN and most of its member countries to Lai's election was generally subdued, with most countries avoiding taking strong public positions, the same cannot be said for Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Marcos was the only leader to break from this line, publicly congratulating Lai and referring to him as president, highlighting the hope for close collaboration and strengthening of mutual interests. This move was not viewed favorably by China, which, claiming Taiwan as part of its territory, does not recognize Lai's title as president. Even more critical was China's reaction to the congratulations extended by the United States through Secretary of State Antony Blinken, accusing the U.S. government of sending "a seriously wrong signal to the separatist forces for Taiwan's independence."

On the economic front, the New Southbound Policy, initiated by former President Tsai Ing-wen starting in 2016, aimed to reduce Taiwan's economic dependence on China, promoting economic cooperation with 18 countries, including ASEAN members, six South Asian states, Australia, and New Zealand. This initiative sought to enhance economic and commercial cooperation, as well as the exchange of talents and resources. However, despite the efforts, reactions have been mixed, also influenced by the caution of various governments trying to avoid irritating China. Taiwan's Minister of Economic Affairs, Wang Mei-hua, indicated that in 2022, investments by Taiwanese companies in Southeast and South Asia surpassed investments in China, reaching $5.2 billion. This increase was driven by trade tensions between the United States and China, but the geopolitical proximity to China continues to represent a significant obstacle for a freer expansion of Taiwan's trade relations.

Now, with the inauguration of Lai, it is expected that Taiwan's commitment to Southeast Asia will continue to increase and even intensify further, with particular attention to cooperation in the high-tech industry. However, the growing influence of China in the region represents an imminent challenge. A recent survey showed that most Southeast Asian countries favor China over the United States. The complex situation will indeed require Lai to carefully balance the promotion of Taiwan's economic interests with the need to navigate the political and diplomatic sensitivities of Southeast Asia.

In conclusion, the inauguration of Lai Ching-te as president of Taiwan represents a significant moment for the island's politics. Faced with the loss of the parliamentary majority and growing tensions with China, Lai will have to navigate an increasingly complex geopolitical context, trying to balance his party's independentist aspirations with the need to maintain stability and peaceful relations in the region. His policies, particularly the strengthening of relations with Southeast Asian countries and beyond, will be crucial for Taiwan's security and economic progress. In this delicate balance, Lai's ability to conduct effective diplomacy and promote sustainable economic growth, while managing external pressures, will define the success of his tenure and potentially influence the regional order of Southeast Asia for the coming years.

The ASEAN-EU Blue Book 2024-2025

The document highlights the strategic partnership between ASEAN and the EU and presents new cooperation programs

ASEAN and the EU launched the ASEAN-EU Blue Book 2024-2025 at the ASEAN headquarters in Jakarta. The Blue Book highlights the strategic partnership between ASEAN and the EU and outlines new cooperation programs under the EU's Global Gateway strategy. The Blue Book testifies to the strong and comprehensive cooperation between ASEAN and the EU with the goal of ensuring regional peace and security, fostering sustainable connectivity, promoting free and fair trade, and promoting sustainable development throughout ASEAN. This year's Blue Book also highlights Team Europe's approach and initiatives on sustainable connectivity and green transition in the ASEAN region. As part of the Global Gateway strategy, the EU has committed to mobilize 10 billion euros of investment by Team Europe for green and connectivity programs in ASEAN. In 47 years of ASEAN-EU relations, we have demonstrated the strength of our strategic partnership and what we can do together in the face of global challenges. This Blue Book provides a comprehensive overview of the multifaceted and deep relationship between our regions and the commitment of our two regions to join forces in pursuit of our common goals,” said H.E. Sujiro Seam, EU Ambassador to ASEAN. The ASEAN-EU Blue Book continues to be a valuable platform to illustrate the EU's significant support for ASEAN community-building efforts, the potential of our strategic partnership, and the progress and key achievements in implementing the ASEAN-EU Action Plan (2023-2027),” said H.E. Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, Secretary-General of ASEAN. Ambassador Hjayceelyn M. Quintana said, “Deepening the strategic partnership between ASEAN and the EU, two of the most advanced and successful regional organizations in the world, could serve as a partnership model for other groupings around the world that contribute to the promotion of international peace, stability and prosperity.”

Highlights of the ASEAN-EU Blue Book 2024-2025 include: 

  1. The ASEAN-EU Commemorative Summit in December 2022 and the 24th ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting in February 2024 in Brussels;
  2. The Global Gateway initiative, outlining the EU's €10 billion commitment from Team Europe for green and connectivity projects in ASEAN;
  3. The 5th ASEAN-EU Human Rights Policy Dialogue in October 2023, preceded by the 3rd ASEAN-EU Civil Society Forum and followed by the AICHR-EU study visit to Strasbourg;
  4. EU cooperation priorities and updates on EU-supported projects in key ASEAN sectors;
  5. Compelling stories from the field, illustrating the tangible impact of ASEAN-EU cooperation on the lives of ASEAN citizens.

Here to download the Blue Book