Japan and ASEAN: back to basics?

After decades of estrangement, Japan and ASEAN seem willing to rebuild their lost relationship.

However, the honeymoon phase between Japan and ASEAN soon petered out with the outbreak of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. In keeping with one of the founding principles of the Fukuda doctrine, according to which Japan would be by ASEAN’s side "not only in fair weather but in adverse circumstances as well", Southeast Asian countries, hit hard by the crisis, were expecting financial assistance from the Japanese which, however, failed to materialize. Japan's inability to deliver on the ambitious promises made by Fukuda twenty years earlier has undermined the relations between Japan and ASEAN ever since and, albeit cordial, the relationship between the two blocs is way far from its former glory.

Tuttavia, l’idillio tra il Giappone e l’ASEAN si ruppe con lo scoppio della crisi finanziaria asiatica del 1997-98. In ossequio a uno dei principi cardine della dottrina Fukuda, quello secondo cui il Giappone sarebbe stato al fianco dell’ASEAN “non soltanto nei momenti felici ma anche in quelli più bui”, i Paesi del Sud-Est asiatico, duramente colpiti dalla crisi, si aspettavano un sostegno economico dal gigante nipponico che, tuttavia, non si materializzò mai. L’incapacità del Giappone di far fede alle ambiziose promesse fatte da Fukuda vent’anni prima ha, da allora, incrinato i rapporti tra il Paese del Sol Levante e l’ASEAN e, benché cordiali, le relazioni tra i due blocchi sono ben lontane dai fasti di un tempo. 

However, one aspect where relations between Japan and ASEAN have continued to flourish is certainly the commercial one. With an exchange of goods at over 231 billion US dollars in 2018 alone, Japan comes in as the fourth largest trading partner of South-East Asian countries, while ASEAN is the second largest trading partner of Japan, just behind China. Unlike the US or the PRC, which have huge domestic markets, Japan needs to sell its products en masse outside national borders. In this respect, with a potential pool of over 650 million consumers, ASEAN is a mother lode of opportunities for Japanese exporters. South-East Asian countries are well aware of the immense market potential they represent for Japan and its companies, and thus have an interest in increasing their economic attractiveness. After the signing of the Japan-ASEAN free trade treaty in April 2008, the two powers have constantly attempted to reinforce their commercial integration, contributing to negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which, when established, will form the largest free trade area on the planet, with the inclusion of all the major East Asian economies, from ASEAN countries, through China, South Korea and Japan to Australia and New Zealand. In addition, it was recently reported that Japan and Southeast Asian countries have amended the 2008 FTA agreement to introduce new provisions that will further ease trade in services and investments, as well as the free movement of natural persons.

To seal the growing commercial cooperation between Japan and ASEAN, the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe intends to rebuild the special alliance between the two blocs even on a strategic level. Tokyo's renewed interest in South-East Asia is increasingly becoming a defining feature of Abe's foreign policy in the Pacific and several highly topical episodes are proof of that. For example, to diversify its supply chains in the event of new global crises analogous to the contemporary one, Japan has decided to distribute over 2 billion dollars to Japanese companies that will move their factories from China to Japan or to Southeast Asia. In the same vein, the proposal to work on a joint ASEAN-Japan Economic Resilience Action Plan, along with the publication of the annual Japanese government white paper on trade which identifies ASEAN as a strategic partner for closer cooperation in the field of digital economy, are a testament to the growing recognition on the part of Japanese authorities of the strategic importance of Southeast Asian countries in the post-Covid recovery phase and, more in general, in the global context of the 21st century.

Under Abe's premiership, Japan seems to have finally rediscovered the importance of South-East Asia as an economic and geopolitical platform in the Pacific and ASEAN countries are proving to be more than willing to go back to cultivating a privileged relationship with the Japanese giant. Increasing commercial and political collaboration between these two international players can do nothing but help maintain a regional balance in Asia-Pacific.

Article edited by Andrea Dugo.

Asian Film Festival 2020

A great opportunity to experience and learn about the fascinating Asian cultures..

The seventeenth edition of the Asian Film Festival will premiere 27 full-length films and 3 short films from 10 East Asian countries (Japan, South Korea, China, Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam). It will take place from July 30th to August 5th in Rome, at the House of Cinema (Casa del Cinema) of Villa Borghese. 

The Asian Film Festival, organized by Antonio Termenini with the support of the Italy-ASEAN Association, will present a selection of Asian experimental and independent cinema, with great attention given to debut and young directors in the Newcomers section.

The screening of no less than 8 full-length feature films from the Philippines, to celebrate 100 years of Filipino cinema with the best of the latest productions, is significant. These include Lav Diaz's The Halt, lasting 4 hours and 40 minutes (almost a short film by the director's standards!), which was presented at Cannes in 2019 but which then remained essentially invisible: a powerful and provocative movie that imagines a grim future too similar to the present. Another important movie is Kaputol, by Mac Alejandre, which mixes past, present and future, reality and fiction, creating movies within the movie, to tell a painful story of disappearances and hopes. The closing night will then feature Kalel, 15 by Jun Lana, a story of a difficult adolescence in the slums of Manila.

The Asian Film Festival will take place in Rome at the House of Cinema (Casa del Cinema) in Largo Marcello Mastroianni 1, from July 30th to August 5th 2020. The ticket for a single screening is 5 euros, the full ticket is 25 euros, and a full ticket for students is 15 euros.


China and ASEAN, from mutual skepticism to gradual cooperation

After decades of slowly drawing closer together, China and ASEAN continue to intensify their cooperation.

Over the past few decades, relations between the People's Republic of China and ASEAN have changed dramatically. At its dawn in 1967, ASEAN, which was created not only with the purpose of greater economic cooperation but also to counter the expansion of Soviet communism in the South-East Asian region, was viewed with suspicion by China. At the time, the People's Republic of China (PRC), a major USSR ally, saw the creation of the Association as a direct affront to the survival of the two regimes. Soon enough, though, with the crisis of Sino-Soviet relations and the ensuing thawing between China and the US, the climate of hostility between PRC and ASEAN gradually tapered off. As early as the mid-1970s, in fact, some ASEAN member states began to establish diplomatic relations with China. What was crucial in strengthening relations between China and ASEAN, however, was the outbreak of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. South-East Asian countries, hit hard by the crisis and profoundly disappointed with the lack of financial assistance from historical allies such as the United States and Japan, greatly appreciated the Chinese initiative to support the Thai economy with over one billion dollars in aid and the commitment by the PRC not to devalue the yuan. Equally valuable to South-East Asian eyes was, in those same years, the Chinese proposal to create a China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, the first proposal by any country that envisaged an agreement with the entire Association and not just with its individual Member States. Despite being aware of the risks of an excessive economic strengthening of the PRC, the ASEAN countries decided to welcome Beijing's conciliatory approach and to sign a free trade agreement with China in 2002. 

However, growing Chinese assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific, coupled with Beijing's increasing economic weight in the region, have made relations between the two powers more uncertain in the last decade. In spite of Beijing's multiple reassurances, some ASEAN member states are concerned about an excessive balance of power shift in China’s favor. At the same time, ASEAN and its members are also aware of the immense economic potential that can derive from an ever-closer cooperation with China and so is Beijing. The enormous economic prosperity that trade integration has brought to both blocs has certainly not gone unnoticed to either. The volume of bilateral trade between China and ASEAN grew from a mere 7.9 billion dollars in 1991 to over 483 billion in 2018, making China the first trading partner of ASEAN by far and, in turn, making ASEAN China's largest trading partner, at least after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. China, with its huge market of 1.4 billion potential consumers, has become a privileged destination for ASEAN products and in parallel South-East Asian economies have become precious recipients of around $10 billion worth of Chinese FDI in 2018 alone. To celebrate this growing cooperation, on his official visit to South-East Asia in October 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping presented the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, which has the aim of, among many others, building "a close-knit China-ASEAN community". South-East Asian countries have welcomed the proposal ambivalently, on the one hand highlighting the great development opportunities associated with it, but, on the other, remaining vigilant about the risks of Chinese dominance in the region. Albeit acutely aware of the enormous benefits their economies can reap from the BRI, the primary interest of ASEAN countries still resides in no single power acquiring too much influence and thus being able to upset the power balance in the Southeast Asian region. In fact, to thrive, ASEAN and its member states need to maintain good relations with both the US and China and, in turn, they need relations between the US and China in Asia-Pacific to remain balanced and stable. Any further step in the direction of integration between China and ASEAN must necessarily take this into account.

In recent decades, the relationship between ASEAN and China has evolved from one characterized by mutual skepticism towards a dynamic and stimulating partnership. Net of some concerns that persist in China-ASEAN relations, this evolution is a testament to the importance of international cooperation. The challenge for the People's Republic of China and for South-East Asian countries in the coming years is to deepen their commercial and political collaboration in the respect of regional power balance in Asia-Pacific. 

High Level Dialogue on ASEAN-Italy economic relations

South-East Asia: a unique opportunity for Italian companies.

The Italy-ASEAN Association and The European House Ambrosetti, under the patronage of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Confindustria, hosted on July 2nd, the 2020 High Level Dialogue on Italy-ASEAN economic relations: a digital round-table intended to replace the physical event that was originally scheduled in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Speakers included the President of the Italy-ASEAN Association, Enrico Letta, the Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Italian Cooperation, Manlio Di Stefano, the Secretary General of ASEAN, Dato Lim Jock Hoi, the Italian Ambassador in Malaysia, Cristiano Maggipinto, and the Vice President for Internationalization of Confindustria, Barbara Beltrame. Guests also included 370 company representatives, including managers and entrepreneurs, and over 200 participants, who contributed to generate a thought-provoking and engaging webinar.

The last five years have been crucial in the strengthening of the relationship between Italy and South-East Asian countries. Since the meeting between the President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella and the Secretary General of ASEAN in 2015, on the occasion of the "First Bilateral Dialogue between Indonesia and Italy", awareness has grown around the importance of the relations between Italy and South-East Asia. The improvements in the diplomatic and commercial relations in recent years have been evident, and the post-Covid era will present even further integration opportunities. 

While the world still grasps with the far-flung effects of Covid-19, the ASEAN region managed to counter an effective response to the crisis. The region has been able to respond and mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 crisis with strength and resilience, thanks primarily to enhanced forms of regional cooperation, among which several online summits among country leaders and meetings with representatives from the US, EU, China, Japan and others. According to ASEAN Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi, even greater regional economic integration will be needed for the recovery phase. The focus will be on the digital economy: according to a report published by Facebook and Bain & Company, by 2025 consumers in the area will spend about three times more on digital platforms than in 2018. 

As emerged from the guests’ remarks, ASEAN member countries see Italy as a key partner in the global scenario, thanks also to the many areas and sectors of common interest, including the electronics, digital, textile, and agri-food sectors. In the post-Covid-19 recovery phase, Italy and ASEAN will have the chance to further strengthen bilateral ties. Both ASEAN Secretary General and Undersecretary Di Stefano stressed the need to work together to promote economic integration, investments, the Industrial Revolution 4.0 and the fight against climate change.  

The event confirmed the growing and mutual interest of the Italian country system towards the ASEAN area. Several participants stressed the importance of greater collaboration between Europe and South-East Asia in an international context of growing rivalry between China and the United States. Cooperation between ASEAN Countries, Italy and Europe will be crucial to strengthen the principles of multilateralism and free trade. 

Article edited by editorial Staff

United States and ASEAN, a dynamic relationship

In the new and complex geopolitical scenario, both the US and ASEAN have an interest in rediscovering their mutual strategic importance. 

The relationship between the United States and South-East Asian countries has undoubtedly been at the heart of the creation and development of ASEAN since the late 1960s. Although the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was born in 1967 out of the community-oriented impulse of its five founding members and out of their common attempt to halt the advance of Soviet communism in Southeast Asia, it is clear that the United States’ contribution has been fundamental for ASEAN’s development. The common anti-Soviet sentiment made ASEAN a valuable American ally in East Asia in the 1970s and 80s: it is in fact no coincidence that in May 1986 the then-President of the United States Ronald Reagan defined “support for and cooperation with ASEAN […] a linchpin of American Pacific policy”. However, the end of the Cold War represented the end of the honeymoon between the United States and ASEAN. Although formally the relations between the two blocs never ceased, the collapse of the USSR marked the end of the expansion of Soviet communism, thus eclipsing Asia among American strategic priorities. Soon enough though, as early as the mid-2000s, the emergence of international terrorism and, more markedly, China’s comeback on the global geopolitical scene, forced the US to reassess the strategic importance of Asia-Pacific and, therefore, of ASEAN. The advent of the Obama administration certified this change of pace in American politics. In fact, breaking patterns with his last predecessors, Obama immediately recognized the centrality of the Asia-Pacific region and plainly stated that ASEAN would come to shape the 21st century.

However, the rediscovery of Southeast Asia for the United States is not purely geopolitical. In fact, ASEAN represents the US’ fourth largest trading partner, with a total volume of exchanged goods and services of over 330 billion dollars in 2018 alone. ASEAN runs a trade surplus with the United States of over 85 billion dollars per year and has been a privileged destination for US FDI, for a total stock of over 271 billion dollars to date. The growing economic weight of ASEAN, combined with its immense potential to balance Chinese ambitions in the region, render it a natural ally fot the US in the Asia-Pacific region. Similarly, the United States represent a valuable commercial partner and a useful geopolitical ally for ASEAN. By virtue of the US’ status as ASEAN's third commercial partner and thanks to its essential role in maintaining a stable balance of power in the Pacific region, both of which are vital elements for the long-term prosperity of the Association, South-East Asian countries have an interest in maintaining a strong and lasting relationship with the US, both on the economic and international relations terms. However, the recent advent of Donald Trump to the White House has contributed to further changing the scenario. The skepticism of the current US President towards multilateral solutions, which prompted him to sit out the US-ASEAN summit twice, made many people turn up their noses in South-East Asia. Despite the innate bilateralism that drives Trump's political agenda, however, the American diplomatic-military apparatus knows well the strategic importance of ASEAN for the United States. These two souls determine a certain ambivalence in US approach to South-East Asia, which has manifested itself several times, even within the Trump administration itself. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not only reiterated his full support for ASEAN regional institutions, but on the occasion of a joint video-conference held on April 22 between the representatives of the two powers to discuss the effects of the Covid-19 crisis, he launched the “US-ASEAN Health Futures initiative”, a $35 million plan designed to support ASEAN countries in the fight against coronavirus, which adds to the over $3.5 billion that the US has already invested in the South-East Asian health sector in the past 20 years.

With the end of the Cold War and the bipolar world order, relations between the United States and ASEAN have experienced more than three decades of ups and downs. The complex, at times ambiguous, American strategy in the Pacific has led to a dynamic and evolving relationship between the two. However, if ASEAN and the United States wish to maintain their presence in the Pacific, they must necessarily rediscover each other's economic and geopolitical centrality, collaborating to build a more balanced regional and international system. 

Article edited by Andrea Dugo.

Global Economic Recovery – New Goals & New Drivers

On June the 9th and 10th, the International Conference on Global Economic Recovery – New Goals & New Drivers was held in Beijing, organized by the China Center for International Economic Exchange, within the Global Think Tank Online Forum on International Cooperation to Combat Covid-19.

The Vice-President of the Italy-ASEAN Association, Professor Romeo Orlandi, attended the event. Here is the transcript of his speech:

It is obviously difficult to ascertain whether the recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic will be quick, full, partial and which shape it will take. Still, some forecasts are possible, based on current data and past experiences. Very likely, the L shaped recovery will be avoided. Actually, in this case it would be a stagnation, not a recovery. We have already signs in China, in Asia and in some European countries that probably and hopefully the worst is behind us. A fast rebound is on sight, as envisaged by the majority of international organizations and governments. If so, we have a couple of questions to be answered. Will the recovery compensate the recession? In addition, is a new crisis a clear and present danger? The first answer is quite easy: in a short period, the recovery will not regain what we have lost in terms of GDP. The negative impact has been – and still is – so deep that wiping out the loss would be a dream. Statistically, too, that will not be possible. Moreover, there is a good possibility of another crisis, due to the dynamics of the economy and the unpredictability of the Coronavirus. The best guess is a W shaped recovery, which means we are supposed to live with uncertainty, in both good and difficult times. Crisis and recoveries will probably be on governments’ agendas and on ordinary people’s lives for quite some time.

As a consequence, we will be asked to manage a complex situation, where concepts like collaboration and sharing will not simply sound as tools of propaganda. Take the case of the decoupling. Many augur that the economies of the industrialized countries should and must separate their destinies from those of emerging countries. The rationale for this position is in front of our eyes: a decline in China and Asia’s supply have repercussions on the global value chain. This is an obvious result of the globalized delocalization originated in the West. A virus in Asia affected the whole world. Then, with the spread of the epidemic, also the industrialized countries were affected with a tremendous slowdown in economic activities, a painful and blatant crisis of demand. So, what is the good in finding the culprit, to point the finger to others? Is it a wise policy to cancel the integration of different economies and replace it with protectionism and trade war? It is not a matter of right or wrong. It is crucial to consider if we can go back to the old times. Reshoring is now deemed fashionable, aimed at creating new employment in industrialized countries. Will it be possible? Are we going to see the restoration of smoking chimneys now dismissed? Are we ready to create overnight another “factory of the world”, the same we witnessed in Asia over the last few decades? The answer is probably not. You cannot build another industrial powerhouse overnight. So, my final remark, is that the only way to pass this tragic moment is to negotiate, continuing trade talks and accept the best sides of globalization without demonizing it after having created it.


Women’s conditions in ASEAN during Covid-19

The sanitary emergency poses new challenges to gender equality

Gender equality is still an unresolved issue in ASEAN countries: a report from the World Economic Forum shows that, without major changes, it will take another 163 years to close the gender gap in South-East Asia and the Pacific, more than in any other region of the world. Despite significant differences within individual countries (from the Philippines ranked 16th in terms of gender equality, to Myanmar occupying the 114th position), this report sheds light on the gender inequality that characterizes the majority of ASEAN countries.

With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic and of its consequences, these barriers to women’s empowerment have become even stronger. As reported by UN Women, in the Asia-Pacific region, women had to take on greater domestic responsibilities during the lockdown, including child care and assistance to the elderly. Because of this, not only women have been more exposed to the virus, but also domestic inequalities have worsened; having to take care of the family and of household chores, women have had less time to work, differently from their male counterparts. Moreover, in ASEAN countries the health sector is characterized by a wide pay gap between men and women, as well as by a low representation of women in decision-making positions. Although more than 80% of nurses and health assistants in the front line in the fight against the virus are women, men occupy 72% of top positions in health leadership, and receive higher remuneration compared to their female colleagues.

Nevertheless, the Covid-19 pandemic has also resulted in changes and potential opportunities for the women of the region. The transition to the digital economy, and the massive increase in the use of e-commerce and online communication platforms, opened a sector in which women can become entrepreneurs and increase their participation in the economy. For example, the rapid growth of e-commerce in Indonesia has fostered female entrepreneurship. To facilitate women’s entry into this sector, ASEAN countries should develop policies aimed at reducing the digital gap between genders. A number of social and institutional initiatives that promote the viewing of women as key resources for building a sustainable economy also encourage greater female empowerment. For example, in Cambodia, women entrepreneurs engaged in sustainable businesses will be able to get financial support for their ideas through the funds of the Women’s Livelihood Bond, a bond series issued by the Impact Investment Exchange.

Despite the obstacles posed by the Covid-19 emergency, ASEAN countries are determined to achieve greater gender equality, by providing useful tools to close the current gender gap. In addition to seeing a greater number of women in leadership positions in 2020, recently the ASEAN Women for Peace Registry convened an online meeting to discuss initiatives to promote the role of women in South-East Asia. This is an occasion that bodes well for the future of gender policies in the region and strengthens the ASEAN’s women hopes.

Article edited by Elena Colonna.

EU and ASEAN: so far yet so close

EU-ASEAN cooperation gradually expands to new areas, among which the fight against coronavirus

The European Union and ASEAN represent the two most advanced regional integration projects in the world. The integrationist spirit that characterizes the two blocs makes them privileged interlocutors on the international stage: it is no coincidence that in the EU-ASEAN Blue Book 2020, published by the European External Action Service, the EU and ASEAN are defined as "natural partners” in the achievement of several common objectives, such as the preservation of the multilateral order, the promotion of sustainable development and the protection of human rights.

However, to date, trade relations between the two blocs are certainly the jewel in the crown of the EU-ASEAN relationship. The EU is the second largest commercial partner of ASEAN behind China and represents 14% of the foreign trade of Southeast Asian countries. In addition, the EU is by far the first source of foreign direct investments in ASEAN countries, for a cumulative amount of over 337 billion euros. Despite a relatively limited economic weight compared to the EU in terms of GDP size (3111 billion dollars against over 18290 billion), ASEAN is the third largest trading partner of the European Union behind the United States and China, and its share of FDI in EU countries has been growing steadily. The EU and ASEAN are committed to increasing their trading volume, which already is at over 273 billion euros in goods and over 85 billion euros in services, by means of the creation of a large free trade area between the two regions. The difficulty of striking a deal of such magnitude so far has prompted the EU to negotiate bilateral agreements with individual ASEAN member countries, including Singapore (already in force since November 2019) and Vietnam (in force since June 2020), but always with a view to a future overarching agreement with the entire Association, which remains the primary objective of the Union.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has led EU and ASEAN to collaborate on an unprecedented side, the health sector. The common multilateral vocation has driven the two powers to organize a joint ministerial videoconference on March 20th, during which they both affirmed the importance of international cooperation for the effective resolution of the Covid-19 crisis. In compliance with this principle, on April 24th, the EU donated €350 million to the ASEAN countries in order to support them in the fight against Covid-19 and its economic and social consequences.

The EU and ASEAN, by virtue of their common faith in the ideals of supranational cooperation, are approaching one another, both from an economic and commercial perspective and from a political one. The Covid-19 crisis, a genuine stress test for the EU-ASEAN relationship, is showing, once and for all, the indispensability of international collaboration in solving problems that know no borders and that involve everyone.


Article edited by Andrea Dugo.

E-commerce: a driving force for the ASEAN economy

Despite the crisis caused by the virus, the ASEAN economy could recover thanks to the opportunities offered by digital commerce.

The restrictive measures taken to combat Covid-19 have had a major impact on citizens' economic activities and habits, causing a deep global crisis. Despite the encouraging forecasts of the International Monetary Fund, Asia will be one of the most affected regions, with a high risk of increasing poverty.

Faced with the upheavals of the regional and international market, businesses and governments in the ASEAN area are now committed to finding new ways of meeting supply and demand, while still respecting the security and social distance needed to manage the virus. In this regard, it seems like digital commerce could be an interesting tool.

A study by Facebook and Bain & Company predicts that by 2025 consumers in the area will spend about three times more on digital platforms than in 2018, thanks to greater purchasing power and more widespread internet access. The sector is therefore growing rapidly and could reach about $ 150 billion in value in 2025.

The pandemic seems to have speeded up this process, as claimed by Pierre Poignant, CEO of Lazada, one of the largest e-commerce platforms in the ASEAN area, controlled by Alibaba. Because of travel restrictions and social distancing measures needed to contain the pandemic, the relationship between supply and demand has changed, increasing the opportunities for online interaction. The growth of the consumers associated with changes in consumption has seen a strong increase in the purchase of online products of any type.

Businesses also perceived the potential of e-commerce after the restrictions imposed by the pandemic: because they had to close the retail trade channel, they invested huge resources on new digital infrastructures, as shown by the data from the study "Riding the Digital Wave: Southeast Asia's Discovery Generation ”, which was involved about 13,000 respondents and over 30 CEOs and venture capitalists.

E-commerce can therefore become an opportunity for the development of ASEAN countries and in particular for SMEs that characterize their economic system and operate in extra-urban areas. In these areas, in fact, the match between supply and demand usually took place on site, with a relatively close circle of consumers from the same territory. Now, thanks to digital channels, companies will instead be able to access geographically distant markets and the same will happen for consumers who will see the multiplication of goods and services otherwise not accessible with the traditional hand by hand exchange.

Many countries in Southeast Asia have realized the importance of online commerce and appear determined to take advantage of its opportunities. Vietnam, after a 20% increase in online trade caused by the lockdown and the restrictions on circulation imposed, aims to reach the podium of ASEAN's digitized economies by 2030 with full 5G coverage of the national territory. Malaysia intends to strengthen the development strategy launched in 2019 under the motto of "One click, a million opportunities", increasing the adoption of new technologies to support and stimulate the national economy, supporting SMEs in the digitization process. Singapore has instead put in place some measures to strengthen e-commerce and stimulate companies to expand their business on the online market, also providing them with training and assistance, as well as the means for the start-up expenses on online portals.

In the economy of the ASEAN countries, therefore, commerce 4.0 is growing and developing, but it will be essential that local governments support this process. The first step will be to spread internet access also in rural areas and then encourage the spread of mobile and cashless payments. Finally, it will be necessary to prepare lean and efficient rules to regulate the sector and put it in a position to produce benefits for all. It appears that e-commerce can be a useful tool to revive ASEAN economies in the context of the current crisis.


Articole edited by Gabriel Zurlo.

ASEAN’s collaborative response to COVID-19

After a delayed initial response, ASEAN accomplished a praised multilateral approach to fighting COVID-19

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations received international criticism for its lack of cooperation and its slow response; given their geographical proximity and intense economic relations with China, ASEAN countries were extremely vulnerable to the spread of the pandemic and soon confirmed their first cases of the virus. However, in the past few months, ASEAN achieved an effective containment of the outbreak, both by demonstrating regional solidarity and by strengthening international cooperation in the face of the COVID-19 challenge.


The intergovernmental organization acted as a bloc, taking collective steps against the pandemic and demonstrating unity and multilateral cooperation. Through several video-conferences held qith the ASEAN Coordination Council, member states were able to share information regarding containment and mitigation measures. In the existing framework of the ASEAN Health sector and the goals stated in the ASEAN Post-2015 Health Development Agenda, the Emergency Operations Centre for public health emergencies provided a platform for daily situational updates, information on prevention and response measures; while the ASEAN BioDiaspora Regional Virtual Centre provided reports of national risk assessments through big data analytics. Moreover, ASEAN member states showed solidarity with regards to laboratory and medical supply needs: Vietnam and Brunei offered support in the form of medical equipment, including test kits, to Laos and Cambodia. On the 9th of April, ASEAN established a Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies and a COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, to support the needs of member states and enable rapid response to the sanitary emergency. These regional agreements have ensured a successful response to the COVID-19 outbreak, proven by the low number of cases in most of the 10 ASEAN member states.


In addition to such efforts, ASEAN countries managed to contain the pandemic through cooperation with external partners, countries and institutions. On the 10th of March, ASEAN ministers held a video-conference with the European Union, to discuss measures for the immediate public health risks, as well as for the longer-term socio-economic concerns caused by the virus. On the 14th of April, a video summit between the 10 ASEAN members, China, Japan and South Korea was held to enhance cooperation, including the exchange of information, updates on clinical treatments, measures for prevention and control, and sourcing of medical supplies. On the 30th of April, another video conference followed between the Health Ministers of ASEAN and the United States, restating the crucial importance of international cooperation for effectively fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.


Article edited by Elena Colonna

The impact of Covid-19 on democracy in ASEAN

The state of emergency has prompted leaders of certain countries to impose worrying measures

The emergency measures taken by some governments of the ASEAN countries to address the health crisis are causing concern in the international community. Some fear that governments could take advantage of the situation to consolidate their power at the expense of their citizens' freedoms and rights.

In early March, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged all countries involved in the health emergency to guarantee the centrality of human rights and international norms. In this regard, the President of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights also reminded the governments of the area that restrictions for public health reasons must be strictly necessary, of limited duration, and based on scientific and non-discriminatory evidence.

However, the approach taken by some governments of the ASEAN countries risks disappointing these expectations. The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development reports that the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar are implementing policies that risk violating international standards. In Thailand and Myanmar, the situation regarding freedom of expression is worrying, especially online. In the Philippines, broad powers have been conferred to law enforcement officers, whose action is often left to the discretion of agents.

In particular, the situation in Cambodia is attracting significant attention. On 31 March, the Cambodian government passed a law conferring full powers on the executive to manage the emergency, including unlimited surveillance of telecommunications, control of the media and social networks, and the possibility of prohibiting or restricting the dissemination of information other than from government sources. A reporter has already been arrested for quoting a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen in the newspaper, and dozens of people have been charged and arrested for spreading "fake news" online. Several groups of activists and institutions of the international community have strongly condemned the measures imposed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, considered excessive and worrying. It is indeed feared that the emergency provisions implemented by the Cambodian authorities may stay in place and be enforced long after the end of the emergency.

The situation in Cambodia and other South-East Asian countries such as the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar, is now under observation by international bodies. It will be crucial to understand how governments will behave with the gradual recovery from the health and economic crisis, when the state of emergency will end. The hope of the international community, represented in this case by the words of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and by the President of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, is that the recovery will coincide with the restoration of normalcy, with respect for the rights and freedoms of all citizens.


Article edited by Gabriel Zurlo Sconosciuto.

La rilevanza del Mar Cinese Meridionale

Con l’abbondanza di risorse naturali e la sua posizione strategica questo mare è diventato il teatro di un teso scontro regionale

Il Mar Cinese Meridionale è al centro di un lungo e complesso scontro geopolitico che coinvolge diversi Paesi del Sud-Est asiatico, la Cina e altre potenze globali tra cui gli Stati Uniti. L’area è infatti incredibilmente ricca di risorse naturali con riserve di circa 11 miliardi di barili di petrolio, oltre 50 trilioni m³ di gas naturale e il 10% delle riserve ittiche mondiali. L’elemento più importante, tuttavia, è che il 30% del commercio marittimo mondiale transita nel Mar Cinese Meridionale, conferendo una cruciale rilevanza geopolitica alla regione. Si tratta dunque di uno specchio d’acqua di fondamentale importanza strategica, e diversi Paesi nella regione avanzano rivendicazioni territoriali, spesso contrastanti.

Nel cuore geografico e simbolico del Mar Cinese Meridionale ci sono diversi arcipelaghi di isole remote e disabitate, rivendicate da Cina, Vietnam, Filippine, Malesia, Taiwan e Brunei. Per molti di questi Paesi, l’accesso alle risorse di quest’area potrebbe rivelarsi fondamentale nel lungo periodo. Chi riuscisse a fare valere le proprie rivendicazioni territoriali su queste isole potrebbe includerle nella propria zona economica esclusiva, ottenendo diritti esclusivi su tutto il territorio e dunque il sottosuolo circostante.

La maggior parte di questi Paesi basa le proprie rivendicazioni sulla Convenzione delle Nazioni Unite sul diritto del mare, ma la Cina sembra avere una posizione diversa, in contrasto con la comunità internazionale. Pechino avanza una rivendicazione storica sul Mar Cinese Meridionale che risale ad alcune esplorazioni navali del XV secolo. Il governo cinese individua i propri confini nell’area compresa all’interno della linea tratteggiata, la famosa “nine-dash line”, tracciata alla fine della Seconda Guerra Mondiale e comprendente circa il 90% del conteso specchio d’acqua.

Negli ultimi anni, la Cina ha portato avanti una politica di potenza volta a imporre le proprie rivendicazioni territoriali con la costruzione di isole artificiali, basi militari e distretti amministrativi, scatenando le proteste delle nazioni coinvolte. Le mosse di Pechino non hanno solo indispettito i Paesi della regione, ma anche la comunità internazionale, con gli Stati Uniti in testa. Gli USA hanno grossi interessi geopolitici nella regione, e sono dunque interessati a contenere le ambizioni di Pechino e a rafforzare il proprio ruolo di potenza militare e geopolitica nell’area del Pacifico.

Meccanismi di risoluzione delle dispute internazionali hanno più volte contestato l’approccio cinese nella regione, cercando di proteggere i diritti territoriali legittimi di Paesi più piccoli, come le Filippine o il Vietnam. Ma la Cina sembra trascurare le risoluzioni delle Corti internazionali e pare determinata a non retrocedere, paventando anche l’uso della forza per affermare le proprie rivendicazioni.

Finora le dispute nel Mar Cinese Meridionale non hanno preso una piega violenta, ma si sono limitate alla sfera politica e diplomatica. Dal 2017, la Cina e i Paesi ASEAN hanno deciso di provare a risolvere la contesa sul piano diplomatico, attraverso la redazione di un Codice di Condotta per il Mar Cinese Meridionale, ovvero un sistema regolatore per risolvere le dispute nella regione. Tuttavia, l’accordo è ancora lontano dalla sua conclusione, e le difficoltà che stanno emergendo non sono poche.

I Paesi coinvolti tendono sempre più a difendere le proprie rivendicazioni militarizzando la regione e provocandosi a vicenda, con gravi rischi per tutta l’area. È una situazione complessa che continuerà ad attirare l’attenzione della comunità internazionale, evidenziando segnali importanti sull’atteggiamento geopolitico della Cina nei prossimi anni e il suo rapporto con i Paesi del Sud-Est asiatico.


Article edited by Tullio Ambrosone.