Artificial intelligence according to ASEAN

ASEAN published a guidebook on artificial intelligence in early February, titled AI Governance and Ethics. We publish an excerpt of it here

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the discipline that makes analytical machines intelligent, enabling an organization to function appropriately and forward-looking. Unlike other technologies, some forms of AI adapt itself, learning with use, so the decisions it makes today may be different from those it will make tomorrow. AI and automation are hot topics, both for their transformative potential and their ability to introduce new opportunities, disrupting old patterns. Southeast Asia is no exception. AI systems should be treated differently from other software systems because of their unique characteristics and risks. The capabilities of AI systems fueled by evolving techniques and discoveries are rapidly outpacing monitoring and validation tools. AI development is also decentralized due to low barriers to entry and the proliferation of open-source technologies. Given the profound impact AI can have on ASEAN organizations and individuals, it is important that decisions made by AI are aligned with national and corporate values, as well as broader ethical values. In this context, ASEAN Digital Ministers identified the Enabling Action that suggests the development and adoption of a regional policy to provide guidance for best practices on AI Governance and Ethics. In recent years, governments and international organizations have begun issuing principles, frameworks, and recommendations on AI ethics and governance. Examples include the Model AI Governance Framework1 and the OECD Council Recommendation on AI2. However, there is still no common intergovernmental standard for AI that defines the principles of AI governance and provides guidance for policy makers in AI. In the process of drafting this Guide, existing AI frameworks and guidelines, such as the UNESCO Recommendation on AI Ethics and the EU Ethical Guidelines for Trustworthy AI, were considered. The ASEAN Guide on AI Governance and Ethics aims to empower organizations and governments in the region to design, develop, and implement mainstream AI systems responsibly and to increase user confidence in AI.

Click here to read the full guide

ASEAN initiatives towards a digital future

The Southeast Asian bloc continues to work to chart its path to a sustainable digital future through bold projects and technological advancements

Articolo di Walter Minutella

In this modern era, technology is playing an increasingly essential role for all globally relevant figures, playing a significant part in various areas, and is crucial for the economic development of modern industries as well as their impact on global competition, improving as well as the quality of life of individuals.

With the increasingly interconnected landscape that characterizes today's world, ASAN countries are adapting to the technological revolution encountering multiple obstacles, including the need to deal with ever-increasing digitalisation, to promote the training of digital skills and to guarantee a reliable connectivity. Within this specific framework, ASEAN has continuously worked to chart its path towards a sustainable digital future, through bold projects and technological advancements.

COVID-19 has certainly made an essential contribution in accelerating the process of social digitalisation, demonstrating the usefulness of IT skills and the importance of a suitable learning ecosystem. In an effort to improve the technical skills of its citizens, the ASEAN Action Plan commits to making digital technologies accessible across all sectors.

A clear example of this progress is the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) project which was launched in 2018. The goal of this initiative is to foster synergy between ASEAN cities through the use of modern technologies to address challenges shared. ASCN's priority is the promotion of intelligent mobility through the use of electric vehicles, as well as the conscious use of renewable energy resources to minimize negative effects on the environment.

At the periodic meeting of the ASCN, we dedicate ourselves to diligently examining these issues and emphasizing firm commitment to the advancement of the project. The Indonesian Minister of Internal Affairs during his participation in the sixth ASCN meeting held in Bali recently, emphasized the importance of continuing to implement Smart Cities to address the challenges related to urbanization and development in tune with global changes, and the need to build a solid foundation to face the era of industry 4.0.

During the meeting, Indonesia was praised for its commitment to the project and three fundamental points were highlighted to improve the results of the activities promoted by ASCN: knowledge sharing, cooperation in urban planning and the promotion of partnerships . In addition to this, the topic of including additional actors in the project to expand the ASCN membership was addressed.

Another significant project is the Digitalization Initiative which involves close collaboration between ASEAN countries in order to implement common policies aimed at the digital transformation of the region. Member States are working to promote the spread of new technologies such as AI, IoT (Internet of Things) and blockchain which have already achieved widespread adoption on a global scale. In order to implement this, ASEAN fosters synergy between the public and private sectors, is committed to developing the digital skills of the workforce and is active in promoting technological innovation with equitable access to all citizens. This project aims to decrease the digital divide that occurs between various geographical areas within ASEAN, as well as foster the inclusion of digital technologies across the entire community.

The “Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025” occupies a central position in these recent innovations. This project aims to enhance infrastructure connectivity in the region through improvements to transport, energy and communications networks. The main focus of the project concerns the enhancement of digital connectivity, with particular attention to the development of digitally advanced infrastructures such as fast broadband networks and integrated technological platforms. The goal is to stimulate integration in the region to foster sustainable economic growth.

In the context of the development of cutting-edge digital infrastructure, the recent extension of the relationship between ASEAN and the Chinese technology giant Huawei should be highlighted. This relationship is based on a strong mutual commitment to promoting sustainable technological development in the area.

To highlight youth talent, the ASEAN Foundation has worked together with Huawei in programs such as ASEAN Seeds for the Future, which aims to build an inclusive digital ecosystem, focusing on developing local ICT talent and promoting participation in the digital society. The renewal of the contract is a clear testimony of ASEAN's commitment to sustainability, especially regarding the growth of next-generation networks. The main feature of the cooperation with Huawei lies in pursuing sustainable digital growth, paying attention to its impacts on both an environmental and social level.

It is clear that ASEAN, on an international level, is making its way in the field of technological innovation, becoming an important protagonist. Today's landscape is characterized by ambitious projects, international collaborations and efforts to develop digital skills.

Although it concerns only a small fragment of this vast reality, the Huawei affair highlights the importance of considering global events in the context of regional initiatives to fully understand ASEAN's role and impact in the digital age.

ASEAN and EU strengthen relations

The two blocs held their 24th ministerial meeting in Brussels, agreeing to intensify relations

At the 24th ASEAN-EU ministerial meeting held in Brussels on Feb. 2, it was agreed to further intensify trade and investment relations between the countries. "We were encouraged by the strong economic cooperation between ASEAN and the EU, which is ASEAN's third largest foreign investor and third largest trading partner in 2022, and reaffirmed our commitment to use this positive momentum to further intensify trade and investment relations between ASEAN and the EU," reads the joint ministerial statement issued on Saturday, Feb. 3. At the meeting, attended by foreign ministers from ASEAN and EU member countries, the ASEAN Secretariat and the European Commission, as well as Timor-Leste as an ASEAN observer, ASEAN reiterated the importance of finding solutions to long-standing market access problems. Both sides also welcome opportunities to increase trade and investment through bilateral free trade agreements, strengthen connectivity and economic relations between the two regions, and enhance sustainable development for both sides, such as through the ASEAN-EU Joint Working Group on Trade and Investment (JWG). "We will intensify our engagement on trade and economic issues and explore other venues in the short and medium term to promote cooperation in areas of mutual interest, such as the digital economy, green technologies and services, sustainable production and consumption of raw materials, and supply chain resilience, while reaffirming a future ASEAN-EU free trade agreement as a common long-term goal," the communiqué reads. In addition, during the meeting chaired by Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo and European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell, ASEAN and the EU reaffirmed the shared values and common interests that have underpinned the 47-year ASEAN-EU dialogue relationship and expressed satisfaction with the comprehensive and diverse nature of the dynamic partnerships. They also reaffirmed the strategic partnership and common interest in keeping the regions peaceful, stable and prosperous, upholding and respecting international law and the international order based on rules and adherence to international law, and maintaining peace, security and stability, including through such measures as the promotion and protection of human rights, including for people with disabilities, gender equality and fundamental freedoms.

Click here to read the communiqué in full

ASEAN's Vision on 2024

We publish here an excerpt from the final document of the January 28-29 meeting in Luang Prabang, Laos, between ASEAN foreign ministers 

On January 29, 2024, the Lao Foreign Ministers' retreat was held in Luang Prabang, Lao PDR. We had in-depth discussions on the implementation of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and priorities for the Lao chairmanship in 2024, as well as concrete and sustainable ways to further strengthen the ASEAN Community, ASEAN's unity, centrality and resilience amid regional and global challenges. We also exchanged views on ASEAN's external relations and recent regional and international developments of common interest and concern. 

We reaffirmed our strong commitment to upholding regionalism and multilateralism, and stressed the importance of adhering to the key principles, shared values and norms enshrined in the United Nations Charter, the ASEAN Charter, the Declaration on the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ).

We reaffirmed our shared commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, and to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resort to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the principles of international law.

We discussed the developments in Myanmar and reaffirmed our unified position that the five-point consensus remains our main reference for addressing the political crisis in Myanmar, with the sole objective of restoring peace, stability and a Myanmar-led comprehensive political resolution. We welcomed the ASEAN leaders' reviews and decisions on the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus Five-Point Consensus, adopted at the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits in 2022 and the 43rd ASEAN Summit in 2023. 

We reaffirmed ASEAN's commitment to assist Myanmar in finding a peaceful, comprehensive and lasting solution to the ongoing conflict, as Myanmar remains an integral part of ASEAN. ASEAN member states welcomed the appointment of H.E. Alounkeo KITTIKHOUN, former Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, as the ASEAN Chair's Special Envoy for Myanmar for 2024, as we continue our efforts to promote progress in the implementation of the Partnership Agreement with Myanmar.

We appreciated his efforts to date to reach out to stakeholders and trust his willingness to help the people of Myanmar find a Myanmar-led solution toward a peaceful, stable, and unified Myanmar that contributes to peace and prosperity in the region.

Read the full document here

Risky maneuvers on the South China Sea

Tensions over disputed waters between China and the Philippines have escalated during 2023, as Vietnam tries to keep its balance while deepening relations with the United States. Beijing moves on Cambodia and Thailand, both of which have a new premier

By Sabrina Moles

"A maritime community of shared destiny." And here the Xi Jinping-era motto about "a community of shared destiny" becomes a message thrown toward its "sea" neighborhood. A neighborhood that is certainly not stable, and now more than ever an object of attention for all those economic, political and social realities that overlook a 3.6 million square kilometer body of water that affects 60 percent of global maritime trade. According to 2017 data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Csis), more than $3.37 trillion worth of goods transit these waters, and just as many opportunities still lurk in the depths: metals, oil, gas. 

If the Pacific in general is now one of the hottest spots in international dynamics the South China Sea sits there like an active volcano that could erupt at any moment. With the end of the pandemic, the monitoring and patrolling of the area that each government carries out to protect its sovereignty over part of these waters has also resumed, and any confrontation-particularly with Chinese vessels-could light the fuse. Diplomacy has taken few steps to protect freedom of navigation, and future years will decide the fate of these claims.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected China's claims, following a complaint by the Philippine government in 2013. Since then, the process of redefining rights of passage and exploitation of natural deposits has also suffered continuous interruptions. Nations in the area have long demanded respect for the rules covered by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which does not cover the kind of "historic" sovereignty Beijing claims to have over the South China Sea. An area circumscribed by the so-called "nine-dash line" on its maps that encloses what the People's Republic considers to be its waters.

Since the 1990s, countries in the region have been trying to build a dialogue that could lead to the establishment of shared rules. The most significant progress came in 2002 with the ratification of a non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (Doc), but since then the idea of a binding Code of Conduct (Coc) has never really taken off. On the sidelines of the July 2023 ministerial, China and the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) established "common guidelines" to speed up negotiations, an action that reflects an attempt to revive the initiative but still sees the group's countries divided. 

Indonesia, as chair for 2023, hosted the Association's first joint maritime exercises near the nine-stretch line. Signs that put China on edge, but not too much. In Asean, outside the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia, the issue is less of a priority and may return to the margins in view of the rotating presidency of Laos, a country very close to Beijing. Indeed, the principle of consensus understood as unanimous agreement among the parties does not allow for the landing of a more determined strategy toward China. 

Chinese companies and armed forces, meanwhile, continue to build. China has already placed military bases in the Spratlys, to the point that-according to U.S. Navy reports-three of these islets can be described as fully militarized due to the presence of anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems. 

The presence of Chinese ships remains constant and "alarming," Manila said of the record 153 Chinese-flagged vessels located near its exclusive economic zone. Confrontations with Chinese vessels going as far as 800,000 nautical miles beyond its zone of jurisdiction are not uncommon, according to Coast Guard reports from countries in the area. The list includes the less than ten-meter ship approach between a Vietnamese fishing vessel fishing and the Chinese navy in March 2023, the two collisions between Chinese vessels and Philippine ships in October 2023, and the confrontation between Chinese ships and the Philippine Coast Guard with the opening of water cannons. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos has adopted a more aggressive policy on maritime security, returning to strengthening military cooperation with the United States. 

Negotiations for an agreement with Hanoi are also underway. It is precisely Vietnam's position that is most under attention. Last September Joe Biden was in Hanoi for a visit described as "historic" and which led to his being received at the Vietnamese Communist Party headquarters. Bilateral relations have been high and contacts on military supplies have deepened, with Vietnam fearing a growing alignment between China and Russia after the war in Ukraine, with the latter struggling to maintain its position as a defense supplier. But beware of thinking that Hanoi is ready to be enlisted by anyone. Compared to the more assertive Philippines, Vietnam continues to want to balance its position, as evidenced by Xi Jinping's December visit. An important signal of assurance for Beijing.

On the Thailand and Cambodia side, however, the approach to maritime security appears softer toward the Chinese giant. Having validated the rise of Hun Manet, son of former Prime Minister Hun Sen who officially became his heir after the July elections, a prospect of continued good neighborly relations is now before observers' eyes. The first signs came with the ban on U.S. officials' access to the Ream naval base in 2021, while the news of the first docking of Chinese ships at one of the key military facilities in the region is from December 2023.

Militarily, China has also been catching up with Thailand, with which it has long held joint exercises. While in 2017 the agreements called for one naval exercise, in 2023 the frequency of meetings increased to three, including air and ground operations. Washington has reduced the scope of military cooperation since the 2014 coup, creating a vacuum that China soon sought to fill. 

The role of the military in Southeast Asian politics

The function of the military in the political arena is not monolithic, and variations in this role are clearly evident in the context of Southeast Asia

By Aniello Iannone

For several Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia and Myanmar, the role of the military in domestic politics has been one of the most significant elements in the development of the region's political history. Indonesia's history is a telling example, with a military regime in power for several decades in the second half of the 20th century that eventually went through a process of transition to democracy in the late 1990s. Thailand also provides an example of a country where the military influenced constitutional changes to insert itself into the political decision-making process. This has created a unique political dynamic in the country, with the military playing a major role in national politics. On the other hand, there are countries such as Myanmar, where the military has also tended to use force and interference in national decision-making processes. 

Indonesia and the role of the military 

'Indonesia declared its independence at the end of Dutch colonial rule and Japanese occupation in 1945. Since then, the country has gone through a series of significant reform and transformation events, including developments in the armed forces. The Indonesian National Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI), formerly known as ABRI (Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia), was established in 1945 with the primary task of protecting and defending the nation. This role was paramount during the struggle for independence against Dutch invasion after Japan left the country defeated during World War II. During this period, the role of the TNI was emphasized, and senior military leaders stressed the importance of the TNI in resisting the Dutch invasion. This situation laid the foundation for indoctrination and military-civilian involvement in Indonesian politics.

However, when the TNI failed to achieve a satisfactory role in line with its aspirations in Indonesian politics under Soekarno's leadership, a political and economic crisis that hit Indonesia in the 1950s during Soekarno's "guided democracy" was an opportunity for the military to take action to get involved in Indonesian politics. These events occurred at the same time as a series of tensions between the military, radical Muslim groups, the rebellion of the Communist Party Indonesia (PKI), tensions also due dalal economic crisis due to inadequate economic policies of Soekarno The situation peaked in the coup led by Soeharto on September 30, 1965, who later assumed the presidency in 1968.

The main consequences of the 1965 events, besides the genocide and elimination of the PKI, saw the establishment of an authoritarian regime from 1965 to 1998. The Soeharto era, often called the New Order, is an example of an authoritarian regime established through a military coup. It is important to consider the significant role played by the armed forces until the fall of this regime and during the initial period of "reformasi," which refers to the reform movement that followed Soeharto's resignation. The TNI, known as ABRI (1959-2000), played a key role as the backbone of the state, being until the fall of the regime the largest political organization in the country. In Indonesia, the ABRI had a strong ideological connection based on its involvement in the civil affairs of the state. The concept of "dwifungsi" (dual-function) refers to military application in the military's own areas to those more belonging to the state's bureaucratic apparatus, played a crucial role in regimes such as the one under Soeharto in Indonesia, with effects still well present in contemporary Indonesia. 

The politico-military regime in Thailand 

The military role in Thailand's political history has been a crucial element since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. The country has experienced a series of military coups and political tensions that have influenced the path of democracy in this nation.

A significant period in Thai politics was when Thaksin Shinawatra came to power in the late 1990s. During those years Thailand was marked by a sharp decline in levels of democratization also due to the 1998 financial crisis and the victory of the Thai Rak Thai party, led by Thaksin, in the 2001 elections. This victory created social divisions that sparked conflicts between pro-monarchy groups, such as the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), and pro-democracy groups, such as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). Political tensions led to the first military coup in 2006, which saw the direct intervention of the military to stop the electoral process that would return Thaksin to power. These social conflicts hampered political stability and elections for several years. Only in 2011, through an agreement between anti-regime groups, the military and the monarchy, did Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, become prime minister. The political crisis of 2013-2014, including anti-government Shinawatra protests and the emergence of movements such as the pro-monarchy People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led to the dissolution of parliament and early elections. However, elections were not held because of the military coup by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), led by General Prayuth Chan-o-Cha. Thailand remained under military rule until 2019.

It is important to note that the 2014 coup was different from the 2006 coup because of the strong military involvement in the government and the 2017 constitutional changes that gave significant advantages to the military in the prime ministerial elections. This reflects the evolution of the military's role in Thailand's political process. This significant role of the military is still evident in the 2019 and 2023 general elections, where the selection of the prime minister continues to depend on the Senate, composed of members who are not directly elected, many of whom come from the armed forces and police. This reflects the persistence of the strong military role in Thai politics and the complexity of the political landscape in this country.

The military regime in Myanmar

Analysis of political and economic development in Myanmar reveals a complex and interesting picture worthy of further study. Since the 1962 coup, during which U Nu's government was overthrown by the military, the action was seen as a response to U Nu's economic policies considered a betrayal of socialist principles. This assessment stemmed from the perception that the economic measures taken by the U Nu government were at odds with the ideological foundations of the regime, based on socialism that led Myanmar went through a political transformation based on a one-party regime controlled by the military.

During this period, the military played a significant role in controlling the economic aspects of the country. Today, Myanmar's political history has become further complicated with a series of events that have left the country lagging behind, both in terms of development and political participation, compared to the rest of Southeast Asia.

Political instability and a series of military coups have been factors that have hindered the process of economic development in Myanmar. However, the lens through which to view the slow pace of this development should be broader, including an understanding of why there is military intervention. The comparison with Thailand offers an interesting analogy. Although both have suffered the same number of coups, Thailand has experienced much more robust economic development than Myanmar.

The role of the military in the two countries has different dynamics. In Thailand, the military role has shifted from "janitor" to "ruler," especially after the coup and the 2019 elections. In contrast, in Myanmar, the military maintains a "praetorian" position, especially after 2011 and the 2021 coup. This indicates a direct intervention of the military in the political processes and development of the country. These conditions are not only influenced by the military role, but also by the significant contribution of elites, especially during the government of Aung San Suu Kyi. This government reflects a failure in various aspects of Myanmar's domestic political policies, especially with regard to the serious issues of genocide involving the Rohingya ethnic group.


The military role in regime management, particularly in the post-World War II period, has been the main focus in theoretical policy analysis. It is important to note that the military role is not monolithic, and variations in this role are clearly evident in the Southeast Asian context. For example, in Indonesia and Thailand, the armed forces not only play the role of security maintainers, but also act as governors (Thailand) or semi-governors. At the same time, in Myanmar, the military role is purely praetorian in nature, manifesting a propensity to preserve the status quo without any substantive dialogue with the opposition. This decision reflects a strong determination to keep policy in line with the vision and interests held by the Myanmar Armed Forces.

ASEAN, less poverty and inequality

Association member countries continue to record progress on 2030 agenda goals

The ASEAN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to end poverty in all its forms everywhere and reduce inequality within and between countries. Progress toward these goals can be monitored by, among other things, examining the extent to which ASEAN member countries are reducing the incidence of poverty and income inequality. Poverty is defined as the inability to meet a minimum standard of living, while inequality refers to disparities in a wide range of areas, including not only income and wealth, but also education, health, and nutrition, among others. The latest available data indicate that most ASEAN member countries have experienced a decrease in poverty incidence.

The Democratic Republic of Laos and the Philippines witnessed a significant decline in their poverty rates, falling from 24.0 percent to 18.3 percent in 2018 and from 23.5 percent in 2016 to 18.1 percent in 2021. Vietnam also saw a significant decline with its poverty rate standing at 4.2 percent in 2022. Similarly, Indonesia and Thailand also recorded a decline in their poverty rates, reaching 9.5 percent (2022) and 6.8 percent (2020), respectively. On the other hand, Cambodia's national poverty rate increased from 13.5 percent in 2016 to 21.5 percent in 2021. Important steps forward have also led to improvement on the income equality front in most ASEAN member states. Thailand successfully reduced its Gini index from 0.49 in 2010 to 0.43 in 2021. Similarly, Vietnam and Cambodia also made significant progress, decreasing from 0.43 in 2010 to 0.38 in 2022 and from 0.34 in 2010 to 0.29 in 2017. Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore also experienced a reduction in income inequality, albeit at a slower pace. The Philippines and Singapore recorded the highest level of income inequality but even for them the level has fallen sharply in recent years. ASEAN is looking ahead to 2030 with increasing confidence.

See the full report on ASEAN's 2023 data here.

ASEAN and China: the bond remains deep

Southeast Asia and Beijing are linked by deep trade entanglements. And this will not change even in 2024

By Lorenzo Riccardi

In October 2023, Indonesia inaugurated its first high-speed rail network, with a trip by President Joko Widodo on the bullet train between the capital Jakarta and the city of Bandung. A $7.3 billion investment for a 140-kilometer route built by Chinese and Indonesian companies that allows travel at peak speeds of 350 kilometers per hour, facilitating trade and logistics in the region.

November 2023 saw the launch of the first high-speed passenger train linking Beijing, the Chinese capital, and Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

This is a long tourist route on the China-Laos railway, adding to the routes between Yunnan Province and the ASEAN region inaugurated in the previous two years. A project symbolic of Southeast Asia's relationship with the People's Republic of China that is part of the Belt and Road Initiative, with the goal of promoting the movement of people and goods between southern China and Southeast Asia. 

This infrastructure is part of a larger project that will lead to connecting with 5,500 kilometers of high-speed network Beijing with Singapore through Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and linking the capitals Vientiane, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to promote the region's logistics, trade and tourism.

The Belt and Road Initiative, from which Rome recently exited, includes 42 of the continent's 49 nations in Asia and all 10 Southeast Asian countries from Brunei to Indonesia.

For China, the ASEAN region occupies a key geopolitical position, serving as a crossroads for major sea routes and attracting the interest of every global power. 

Economically, the region's aggregate gross domestic product exceeds $3.6 trillion, driven by some of the highest growth: 4.2 percent in 2023 and 4.6 percent in 2024 according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates.

Southeast Asia's role in global supply chains, rich natural resources and trade agreements highlight the region's strategic importance, while infrastructure development and connectivity initiatives increase its global relevance.

According to IMF estimates in the October outlook, China will grow at 5 percent in 2023 and 4.2 percent in 2024, while variations in GDP trends are observed for ASEAN countries with Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam showing the highest growth rates for 2023-2024.

Brunei is the region's smallest economy and shows a decline of 0.8 percent in 2023, with a notable recovery to 3.5 in 2024, indicating a turnaround. Cambodia performs the best, with gross domestic product increasing by 5.6 percent in 2023 and further increasing by 6.1 percent in 2024.

The Philippines, forecast a change of 5.3 percent in the current year, and a further increase to 5.9 percent in 2024, confirming the highest growth in the ASEAN-5 Group of the five countries with the largest population and GDP.

Indonesia and Laos maintain a steady trend, with Jakarta at +5 percent for both 2023 and 2024 and Vientiane at 4 percent over the two-year period. Malaysia shows incremental figures at 4 percent in the current year and 4.3 percent for next year.

An increase of 2.6 percent is estimated for Burma in both 2023 and 2024, while Singapore, which has the largest GDP per capita, is estimated to expand at 1 and 2.1 percent in the two-year period 2023-2024.

Finally, the International Monetary Fund forecasts a gradual increase over the two years for Thailand, with growth of 2.7 and 3.2 percent; Vietnam, among the region's large economies, has the largest delta with GDP + 4.7 percent in 2023 and a projection of 5.8 percent in 2024.

ASEAN and Beijing grow above the global average, which stands at +3 percent in 2023 and 2.9 percent next year. 

China has Southeast Asia as its top trading partner with $826 billion in trade as of November 2023, above Beijing's aggregate import and export volume recorded with the European Union ($716 billion) and the United States ($607 billion) in the first eleven months of the year. 

Kuala Lumpur, which has just signed mutual visa-free entry agreements with China is the largest exporter with $94 billion in November Chinese customs data (nearly four times the volume of Italian exports to China, which stands at $24.9 billion) while Hanoi is the largest importer of Chinese products with about $124 billion.

To promote partnership in trade, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have signed a series of agreements on economic cooperation with a large number of bilateral and multilateral treaties signed over the past 20 years.

-Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation between ASEAN and China: Signed in 2002, this agreement served as the foundation for economic cooperation between Beijing and ASEAN member countries. It outlined the principles and areas of cooperation, including trade, investment and economic integration.

-ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA): Implemented in several stages between 2005 and 2010, the ACFTA promoted the establishment of a free trade area between China and ASEAN with the reduction or elimination of tariffs on a wide range of goods, encouraging greater trade flows.

-Agreement on Trade in Goods and Comprehensive Economic Cooperation between ASEAN and China: Signed in 2004, this agreement introduced specific provisions for the reduction and elimination of duties on various goods traded between China and ASEAN countries.

-ASEAN-China Investment Agreement: Signed in 2009, it aims to promote bilateral investment flows by establishing a framework for investment protection and facilitation.

-ASEAN-China Free Trade Area Update Protocol: Signed in 2015, this protocol further enhanced trade relations between China and ASEAN with tariff reductions and addressing issues related to trade in goods, services and investment.

-Protocol amending the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation between ASEAN and China: Signed in 2015 with the aim of deepening economic integration by addressing issues such as customs procedures, certificate of origin rules and trade facilitation.

-ASEAN-Hong Kong, China Free Trade Agreement: effective as of 2019.

-Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership: (RCEP) entered into force in 2022 is a multilateral free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region. It is considered one of the largest trade agreements in the world as it involves a large number of countries: the 10 members of ASEAN and their six trading partners-China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.

ASEAN moves closer to Africa

Not only Europe, the Americas and the Gulf. Southeast Asia also strengthens ties with the African continent

ASEAN and South Africa held the inaugural meeting of the ASEAN-South Africa Joint Sectoral Cooperation Committee (ASA-JSCC) at ASEAN headquarters on Nov. 30. The meeting marked the launch of the first formal sectoral dialogue partnership on the African continent and thus realizes the expansion of ASEAN's external relations to all continents of the world. ASEAN foreign ministers conferred sector dialogue partner status on South Africa at the 56th Foreign Ministers' Meeting last July in Jakarta. Last week's meeting adopted the ASA-JSCC mandate and deliberated on several areas of future cooperation. On the economic front, the meeting encouraged South Africa to explore practical cooperation in areas of mutual interest and benefit, including trade and investment, public-private partnership, strengthening micro, small and medium enterprises, tourism, transport, energy the critical minerals and mineral resources sector, information and communication technologies, food security, halal industry, sustainable agriculture, blue economy, digital economy, fisheries, aquaculture and forestry, research and innovation, and science and technology. The meeting also noted the four key priorities of the economic partnership that ASEAN would like to pursue with South Africa, namely (1) strengthening ASEAN market integration; (2) sustainability and decarbonization; (3) digital transformation; and (4) inclusiveness of economic systems and people-to-people exchanges. Regarding the socio-cultural sphere, it is intended to explore cooperation in the areas of health, women's empowerment, education and climate change, but also to intensify efforts to improve people-to-people contacts through exchange programs involving youth, students, media and artists, as well as scholarship programs. Both sides also agreed to develop the ASEAN-South Africa Areas of Practical Cooperation, which will serve as a framework for achieving shared goals and related priorities in the coming years. The development is very significant because it testifies to the strengthened interconnection between ASEAN and several areas of the world with broad growth potential, including Africa.

Toward an Italian strategy for the Indo-Pacific

Italy moves to formalize its engagement in the region

Editorial by Gabriele Abbondanza, University of Madrid and University of Sydney

Italy is getting closer to the Indo-Pacific. In spite of geographic distance and important challenges close to its borders, Rome could formulate an Italian strategy for the Indo-Pacific, thereby strengthening ties with this macro-region.

As highlighted by the most recent research, Italy has been approaching the Indo-Pacific for about 20 years. In the meantime, much has changed: the region’s economies are growing at an enviable pace, territorial disputes have risen in many regions - the South China Sea is emblematic - and the economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic have underscored the fragilities of the international community.

Nevertheless, Italy has continued to pursue its own “informal approach” to the Indo-Pacific. Trade interchanges have increased by more than one-sixth in the last 10 years, and defense-related interchanges by nearly 45%. The strategic collaboration has strengthened joint training, defense of navigation and overflight rights, interoperability, and strategic projects ( see IPO,GCAP, and IMEC, among other examples). Finally, Rome has formed partnerships with many key players in the region, including PIF, Vietnam, Korea, IORA, ASEAN, UAE, Japan and India.

Given the undoubtedly ripe time, Italy is moving to formalize its commitment. Such a potential strategy, currently under discussion, would rationalize the Italian approach, formalizing it for the benefit of European and North American allies and Indo-Pacific partners, and ensure the constancy of such engagement well into the future.

This journey began with the creation of an Indo-Pacific Committee at the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, thanks to the efforts of Hon. Paolo Formentini, who was also supported in this area by opposition representatives such as Hon. Lia Quartapelle Procopio. The Committee’s activities -which I had the pleasure of contributing to with the inaugural hearing - will ensure expert advice to support parliamentary debates.

Other events in support of an Italian strategy - which is inclusive and multilateral in nature, and respectful of the many existing sensitivities - included a conference at the Senate that saw Sen. Francesco Giacobbe, Hon.Formentini, myself, Dr. Karolina Muti and Dr. Alessio Piazza explain the benefits of such an objective to an audience of experts. The ambassadors present, in particular, have emphasized the importance of an Italian strategy with these characteristics for Indo-Pacific relations.

There still is a long way to go and there are several developments that could distract the attention of the government which always has the last word on the subject, however, the conditions are favorable and it is therefore with guarded optimism that we can look to the future of Italy’s relations with the Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN SMEs in the circular economy

Considering that SMEs are the backbone of ASEAN economies, constituting 85 percent of employment and contributing 44.5 percent of the region's GDP, their role is crucial to the energy transition

By Sibeles Chiari

More than just a production model, the circular economy could present itself as a survival strategy aimed at curbing the destructive drift of the Earth's ecosystem. It is an alternative production system to take-make-dispose in that it is based on the concepts of reducing, reusing and recycling the resources used in the product life cycle. Thus, that the future of business must be circular is a sine qua non for keeping the planet livable. Associated with the benefits to the environment and human health, the shift to the circular economy also presents a number of economic opportunities, from job creation, to developing sustainable industries and stimulating entrepreneurship. Considering that SMEs are the backbone of ASEAN economies, constituting 85 percent of employment and contributing 44.5 percent of the region's GDP, their role is crucial to the transition to the "3 R" economy. By involving SMEs in national strategies, these countries can address environmental challenges, foster economic growth and competitiveness in an increasingly sustainability-conscious global market. For this transition to succeed, SMEs will increasingly need to focus on the development of new products or services that contribute to climate mitigation and adaptation and the reduction of waste generated. Precisely because of the fact that SMEs are a vital agent toward decarbonization, some ASEAN countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia, and Myanmar, have already established qualitative targets aimed at providing information, capacity building, and financial and technological support for the adoption of green industrial practices and technologies. It is worth mentioning that, the geographic area in question holds an important position in international dynamics, especially following the changes in geo-economic balances in recent times, being the third most populous area in the world with a GDP increasing by 4-5% annually and with an increasingly significant role in the global supply chain. Indeed, in addition to the environmental and economic aspects, the shift to a circular economy in ASEAN countries is driven by a combination of geopolitical, political factors and recognition of the global trend toward sustainability. This trend is embodied in the Global Circular Economy Forum (WCEF), which is one of the world's leading events dedicated to advancing circularity that brings together business leaders, policymakers, and experts to present the world's best circular economy solutions aimed at addressing planetary crises. At the regional level, ASEAN has taken significant steps to promote collaboration on the transition to the circular economy. Examples include the following initiatives: the Circular Economy Framework for the ASEAN Economic Community (2021), complemented by an Implementation Plan and Work Program; the ASEAN Sustainable Consumption and Production Framework (2022); the Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform (2023); and finally, the Climate Change Guidelines for SMEs (2023). Defining solutions that will increase SMEs' resilience to climate change and accelerate the transition to sustainable growth are the basis of efforts at the regional level, as emphasized by the first ASEAN Forum on the Circular Economy held on November 8-9, 2023 in Jakarta that brought together representatives from policy, business, academia, and the third sector. As can be seen, these are somewhat recent initiatives toward which joint efforts of various stakeholders are being focused to push the transition to the circular economy and create synergies between them. Attempts to innovate the entire production process are also coming from below. In fact, a number of social enterprises have sprung up in recent times, such as Bambuhay (Philippines), which produces straws and toothbrushes from bamboo to replace plastic products, or CoFarm (Laos) an agricultural platform that connects urban farmers directly with restaurants, revolutionizing the supply chain for fresh vegetables. Or Rubysh (Indonesia), which has used hundreds of kilograms of waste as replacement material for jewelry. Finally, to list one more company out of the many that exist, MoreLoop (Thailand) sells surplus textiles that would otherwise go to waste and, through upcycling, takes surplus textiles and turns them into new products, giving them a second life thus reducing environmental impact. In conclusion, what perhaps gives the most hope and optimism, beyond all the political initiatives, is precisely the strong rise of a new generation of entrepreneurs who are passionate and oriented to green principles, and seriously intent on changing the course of the world economy, thus the fate of our planet.

Italy and ASEAN, Partnership growing stronger

At the Farnesina, a new high-level meeting with the leadership of the bloc of Southeast Asian countries

Editorial by Maria Tripodi, Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation

On December 7, I received the Deputy Secretary General of ASEAN, Michael Tene, at the Farnesina. The meeting was part of our country's ongoing collaboration with ASEAN to implement the Development Partnership launched in late 2020. In a little more than three years, our Partnership with ASEAN has achieved significant results, enabling the implementation of multiple training initiatives for the benefit of Southeast Asian countries in a wide range of strategic areas: from security to the environment, and from the protection of cultural heritage to sustainable development. With Deputy Secretary General Tene, I renewed our common commitment to enriching the Partnership with new projects-many of which are already under negotiation with the Secretariat and member states-with a shared mode of ownership and in areas of common interest. These include many fields that are essential for the stability and security of states in contemporary reality: cybercrime, combating transnational crime, promoting legality, space, food security, energy transition, and prevention and management of natural disasters. This is in the knowledge that only together can the growing threats to peace, the protection of the rules-based international order, and sustainable development, which are also fueled by the multiplication of crisis theaters around the world, be effectively addressed. Indeed, ASEAN represents a model of regional integration in a key geo-strategic position for maintaining peace and shared prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. In this context, Italy stands ready to collaborate with the incoming Laotian Chairmanship of ASEAN, focusing on the issues of connectivity and resilience, with the hope that the country can build on the important achievements of the current Indonesian Chairmanship, especially in the areas of regional integration and investment. We trust that Laos will also ensure continuity in Indonesia's efforts to manage the serious crisis that has plagued Myanmar for nearly three years, following the February 1, 2021 coup d'état, with possible repercussions for stability in the area.