Behind the camera

Challenges and opportunities for Southeast Asia’s movie industries.

Manila in the Claws of Light is like an Italian Neo-Realist film set in Hell”.

This was the comment regarding the film of Lino Brocka, the most famous Filipino director and producer. The movie received critical acclaim already in 1975 when it was released. From the East: FAMAS (Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences Awards) awarded it the prize of Best Movie, Best Director, Best Photography Direction, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. But also from the West: it was added to the list of Best Movies in The World, screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, and written about in an extensive article in the New York Times. In its Blu-Ray version, the movie is introduced by Martin Scorsese.

In the golden years of Italian cinema, it was quite unusual to hear about Southeast Asian actors and directors. However, the receptivity of Brocka and others in Europe from the 2000s is the sign of the new interest in the Asian continent’s seventh art. The most striking case is probably Parasite, the movie by the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho which was in 2020 the first movie in the world to be awarded the Oscar prize as Best Movie and Best International Movie simultaneously. 

Compared to Japan and Korea, there are still many difficulties for ASEAN countries to break into the Western film market. However, despite obstacles, some of them have managed in recent years to fit into the Cinema International Festivals circuit.

Indonesia is a good example with its Gundala, a superhero movie sprung from the creative vein of the director Joko Anwar. The main character is based on one of the protagonists of the Indonesian comic artist Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata, or “Indonesian Stan Lee” thanks to his 50+ years of experience in drawing cartoons. Gundala is probably the most famous superhero in Indonesia, and Anwar decided to pick him as a subject for his film. Released in 2019, Gundala drew more than one million visitors to movie theatres in just one week. The premiere was held at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is not uncommon to find it in several Italian Far East Asia Festivals held throughout the year, together with Impetigore, a horror masterpiece from the same director. In 2020 Gundala was also dubbed in French and released on Blu-Ray by Condor Films, an industry well known for distributing Cannes or Sundance Film Festival award-winning movies.

The documentary genre is well represented by Midi-Z, a movie director born in Myanmar but a naturalised Taiwanese citizen. His Ice Poison, released in 2014, was selected by Taiwan to compete for the Foreign Language Academy Awards. A sensible choice considering its debut at the Berlin Film Festival and its award as “Best International Feature Movie” at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Midi-Z himself was nominated as “Taiwanese Director of the Year” at Taipei’s 53rd Golden Horse Awards. Despite he is a naturalised Taiwanese citizen, Myanmar is a constant theme of his works: from Return to Burma (2014) to Road to Mandalay (2016).

Despite Southeast Asian movies’ versatility, not a lot of them can reach European movie theatres if we exclude Film Festivals. Not only weak demand from the market, but also the lack of funds and government support for the creative movie industry play a major role. Italy, in this sense, is privileged: there are important spaces for Asian movies in many Italian cities, first and foremost the Venice Film Festival. For some years now, Rai (Italian State Broadcaster) too offers attractive spaces on a global level for moviegoers, where they can find special products as well as niche curiosities. A crucial role for Italy, that if used properly, might lead even more people to enjoy the ASEAN countries’ rich film repertoire.

By Valentina Beomonte Zobel

EU and ASEAN increase interregional cooperation

The European Union and ASEAN upgrade their relations on environmental sustainability, economics, security and connectivity

After six years of consultations, at a meeting on Tuesday December the 1st, the European Union and the ten countries of the ASEAN group updated the status of their relations, passing from a "Dialogue Partnership", to a much more consistent "Strategic Partnership".

Interactions between the European Union and ASEAN have a long history behind them, being characterized by trade, foreign direct investments and bilateral agreements between the EU and individual members of the Association. Nevertheless, the wish to strengthen relations through a more advanced partnership was officially expressed by the European Commission only in 2015 and two years later, in 2019, ASEAN and the EU foreign ministers agreed on the principles for the elaboration of the Strategic Partnership. 

The last meeting confirmed the commitment of the parties in organizing regular summit meetings and in strengthening cooperation in four strategic areas: environmental sustainability, economy, security and connectivity. The co-chairs of the ministerial meeting, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell and the Singaporean Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishman, both welcomed the move, calling it "a historic event".

The outcome of the negotiations has long been uncertain due to disagreements over palm oil, a product that is still essential for the economies of Malaysia and Indonesia but adverse to the EU because of the environmental impact of its production. As part of the shared effort, however, both parties agreed on the establishment of a joint committee, entirely dedicated to the sustainable reformulation of the vegetal oil industry. Furthermore, concerning sustainable development, EU and ASEAN leaders have referred to some previous international agreements, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sendai Framework Convention for the reduction of the risk of environmental disasters. The idea is to establish a dialogue as complete as possible, encouraging the inclusiveness of topics such as climate change, the preservation of the oceans and biodiversity, the increase of renewable energy and respect for human rights. ASEAN, then, welcomed the EU commitment to promote "greener" cities, through the implementation of the "ASEAN Smart Green Cities" program.

The Covid-19 pandemic was the second item on the agenda. Recognizing its unprecedented impact, leaders encouraged greater cooperation to increase their respective crisis response capacities, combining public health and sustainable development. The EU has already offered ASEAN 800 million euros to deal with the health emergency and has pledged to donate another 20 million and support the "South East Asia Health" project. Both parties have also agreed on a joint approach to ensure fair and collective accessibility to vaccines, defined as "global public goods". In this context, the European Union will provide a contribution of 500 million euros in grants and guaranteed loans to support COVAX, the multilateral facility designed to accelerate the development, production and global distribution of vaccines.

The leaders also recognized the importance of an increasingly solid economic cooperation, especially aimed at the recovery of the post-Covid-19 world economy. The commitment made by the parties will be directed to further efforts towards the negotiation of an ambitious free trade agreement between the EU and ASEAN, focused on greater economic integration and trade liberalization.

By recalling the EU-ASEAN declaration on cooperation in the field of cybersecurity, adopted in 2019, the parties also remarked the importance of strengthening cooperation in this area, in order to promote open, secure, accessible and peaceful information. The security issue is further taken up by the intent to consolidate joint efforts to counter terrorism and transnational crimes as well as to ensure lasting peace and stability in the region.

In conclusion, in a separate statement, ministers pledged to promote connectivity between the EU and ASEAN to support post-pandemic socio-economic recovery in a more sustainable and inclusive way. Therefore, the idea is to simplify and diversify the transport networks, encourage the use of clean and renewable energy, ensure food, energy and health security and promote political exchange in the fields of education, research, tourism and technology.

The negotiations emphasised the pragmatic approach of the European Union and ASEAN, aimed at solving single yet very important problems. The pandemic has spared no one and the Strategic Partnership underlines the urgency to combine two of the largest existing economic blocs, which together cover almost 30% of world GDP and could be decisive for the economic recovery of the whole world. In a nutshell, as Gunnar Wiegrand, the EU’s Director of Foreign Affairs for Asia and the Pacific recalled, it was a historic meeting "between two anchors of stability in a world of growing uncertainty".

By Emilia Leban

Aboard the ASEAN Express

A journey to discover Southeast Asia’s hidden gems

The nature lover cannot miss out on the Philippines and Indonesia’s heavenly beaches and unspoiled natural environment. Consisting of more than 7.000 islands and surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Philippines have earned several nicknames linked to tourism, which amounted to 12,7% of the country’s GDP in 2019 (according to the Philippine Statistics Authority): the capital of the western Pacific, the centre of Hispanic Asia, the Pearl of the Orient Seas, capital of fun, and many others. It is the perfect destination for scuba diving and snorkel lovers. In particular, Cebu island is well renowned for its coral reef and sea caves that attract thousands of photographers from all over the world every year. The more adventurous dare to get right into Sagada’s tribal region, or to explore UNESCO sites such as Chocolate Hills or Batad and Bangaan rice terraces to learn about the history and traditions of ethnic villages still living there. Indonesia does not even need any particular introduction.

L’amante della natura di certo non può farsi sfuggire le spiagge paradisiache e la natura incontaminata di Filippine e Indonesia. Circondate dall’Oceano Pacifico e composte da più di 7.000 isole, le Filippine si sono guadagnate numerosi appellativi legati al turismo, settore che nel 2019 ammontava per il 12,7% del PIL del Paese (dati del Philippine Statistics Authority): capitale del Pacifico occidentale, centro dell’Asia ispanica, Perla dei Mari Orientali, capitale del divertimento, e molti altri. Le Filippine sono la meta ideale per gli appassionati di scuba diving e snorkeling: in particolare, l’isola di Cebu è una meta prediletta sia per le sue barriere coralline, sia per le grotte marine che attraggono ogni anno migliaia di fotografi da tutto il mondo. I più avventurosi si addentrano fin nella regione tribale di Sagada, oppure esplorano i siti UNESCO come le Chocolate Hills o le terrazze di riso di Batad e Bangaan, per conoscere la storia e le tradizioni dei villaggi etnici che ancora vi si trovano. 

Its pristine white beaches are a destination for more than six million tourists every year and feature in several well-known international movies. For those who prefer quietness and less crowded places, Java, Sumatra or any of the other 17,505 islands of the world's largest island country might be a good fit.

For culture lovers, Vietnam and Thailand might be an obvious choice. But did you know that the less popular Cambodia hosts Angkor Wat, the largest archaeological site in Southeast Asia and the biggest religious monument in the world? Its name, which translates to “temple city” in Khmer, references the fact that it was built by Emperor Suryavarman II as the state temple and political centre of his empire. The colossal site stretches for 1.626 km2 and it has become so embedded with nature after more than 900 years that it is hard to tell where the rock ends and the roots of ancient trees begin. Originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, with time Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple and is so important today that is even represented on Cambodia’s national flag.

For the traveller who cannot help but dream of bright lights and the buzz of the metropolis, Malaysia and Singapore are the right destinations. The days when these seas inspired Emilio Salgari’s novels are lost in memory. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city, is booming, especially in the high-tech sector: according to the World Bank, the export value of high-tech products in 2015 stands at 57 billion dollars, the second highest in ASEAN after Singapore. Iconic sightseeing spots include the Petronas Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world, and the Genting Highlands Resort, an integrated hill resort development comprising hotels, shopping malls, theme parks and casinos, perched on the peak of Mount Ulu Kali at 1,800 meters asl.

For those who prefer contemporary architecture instead, Singapore provides several genuine examples where human genius joins nature: Gardens by the Bay, a nature park spanning more than a hundred hectares that is part of the nation's plans to transform its "Garden City" to a "City in a Garden"; the Helix Bridge, a DNA molecule shaped bridge; the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, the performing arts centre; and many more.

The charm of wild beaches, the heady scent of incense in temples, the chaos of the city, and much more: Southeast Asia really knows how to touch travellers’ heartstrings, even those of the most demanding.

By Valentina Beomonte Zobel

37th ASEAN Summit: challenges and new opportunities

Covid-19 pandemic, RCEP and the South China Sea: the ASEAN countries at the core of the Indo-Pacific region. 

The 37th ASEAN Summit was held online from the 12th to the 15th of November, the last of the Vietnamese presidency, which will now be replaced by Brunei. The opening ceremony of the Summit between ASEAN member countries was marked by the speeches of the President of Vietnam, Nguyen Phu Trong, and the Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Both leaders emphasized the resilience of ASEAN in the face of the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic.

First of all, specific attention was paid to the delicate issue of the South China Sea. ASEAN member countries reaffirmed their intention to maintain peace and stability in the area through the elaboration of a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea to be stipulated with Beijing. The negotiations are struggling to take off, but the document should be ready by the end of 2021, according to the statements made during the Summit. The Code of Conduct aims at guaranteeing the free trade of goods in this disputed stretch of water, respecting the rules and agreements of the International Law of the Sea. 

The ASEAN leaders also discussed the shared response to the Covid-19 pandemic, introducing the l’ASEAN Strategic Framework for Public Health Emergencies. All the joint initiatives on health emergencies in the region will be based on this framework, which is intended to improve ASEAN’s preparedness and responsiveness to public health emergencies. The Covid-19 Response Fund is also included in this document, arranged by the ASEAN countries in April. The Fund’s budget amounts to 10 million dollars, with the specific function of providing assistance to the nations most affected by the pandemic. Although very different from the Next Generation EU recovery plan in terms of scope and purpose, this fund represents an important first step for Southeast Asian countries towards the definition of shared instruments to manage crises.

Along with the health emergency, the pandemic crisis had a destructive impact on the societies and the economies of the region. Therefore, the epidemiological response to the pandemic must go hand in hand with the socioeconomic recovery strategy in Southeast Asia. In this regard, the ASEAN countries representatives established the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework with the aim of planning the recovery phase. The strengthening of regional health systems, the increase of economic cooperation within ASEAN, the promotion of digital transformation, and the attention to sustainability and environment are among the main measures included in the Recovery Framework. Its goal is to manage the delicate recovery period using a cooperative approach with a focus on the regional dimension of the crisis.

Furthermore, this Summit saw witnessed the establishment of the first ASEAN Women Leaders’ Summit. For the first time ever, the representatives of ASEAN women leaders made their voices heard at a summit entitled “Women's Role In Building a Cohesive, Dynamic, Sustainable And Inclusive ASEAN Community In a Post Covid-19 World”. It emphasized the role of women in promoting sustainable development in the post-pandemic world. All the women leaders strongly stated that the pandemic threatens to reverse the region’s difficult achievements in terms of gender equality and women empowerment. Therefore, it was loudly pointed out that ASEAN have to mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19 on women, placing them at the heart of the reconstruction and recovery processes.

The 23rd ASEAN Plus Three Summit was also a remarkable moment. The summit between ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea focused on the urgent need to strengthen cooperation for economic and financial resilience. ASEAN and its regional partners confirmed their willingness to increase joint efforts in restoring economic growth in the entire region by strengthening regional trade and economic cooperation. These actions are also intended to promote business and investment opportunities. Furthermore, all the efforts aim at strengthening SMEs, vulnerable social groups, start-ups and economic sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, but also the development of the digital economy.

The Summit’s final day marked another historic date. On November 15, 2020, during the 4th RCEP Summit, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was signed. Launched in 2012 during the 21st ASEAN Summit, the RCEP is a mega trade agreement signed by the 10 ASEAN member countries and China, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The new economic block will represent 30% of the global economy and will include about 2.2 billion consumers, creating the largest free trade area in the world, larger than European or North American trade areas.

The ASEAN Summit revealed once again the centrality of the Southeast Asian countries in the new regional and global context. In the South China Sea issue, the ASEAN nations will be key in balancing China. With the RCEP, Asia pushes on free trade and multilateralism, reintroducing an important trend that was hampered by the Trump Administration in the last years. Definitively, ASEAN showed itself to be united and strong facing the new challenges and problems, confirming its role as a forum for dialogue and cooperation for Asia and the entire world. 

By Annalisa Manzo

A green future for ASEAN: responding to climate change through sustainability

The region focuses on technological innovation and respect for the environment

On Tuesday the 10th of November, the third round table of the Digital High Level Dialogue organized by The European House Ambrosetti in collaboration with the Italy-ASEAN Association was held on the theme of the relations between Italy and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The region is revealing to be a promising area for import/export activities, as well as a good destination for investments in sustainable development and circular economy. For instance, the experience of ASEAN countries in managing the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how international problems can be addressed through collective actions and with a resilient approach. However, the threat of climate change persists and it requires the adoption of appropriate solutions by institutions and companies.

A hopeful sign comes from the “Renewables 2020” report of the International Energy Agency (IEA), according to which in 2020 we have witnessed an increase in renewable energy worldwide, accounting for 90% of the new energy generated globally with the remaining 10% derived from gas and coal. The growth forecasts for 2021 also suggest an equally optimistic result: Renewable Energy Sources (RES) will become the main source of electricity production on a global scale by 2025.

As far as ASEAN countries are concerned, climate change is a challenge to their very existence. Indeed, the region is known for its humid tropical climate, characterized by an average temperature of over 18ºC and by continuous monsoon rains. However, the consequences of pollution, rising sea levels and increasing CO2 emissions already appear in a disruptive way through natural disasters and the so-called "climate migration" which affects the region’s socio-economic dimension. According to a study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the region’s GDP could shrink by 11% by 2100 in the absence of suitable measures.

However, ASEAN governments are moving on the right track by enhancing their intention to adopt sustainable, inclusive and long lasting development models. They will meet at the 38th edition of the ASEAN Ministers on Energy Meeting (AMEM) which will take place from the 17th to the 20th of November, a moment of discussion on the issue of “Energy transition to sustainable development” to assess to what extent "sustainability" and "circular economy" are becoming a priority within the institutional agendas.

During the meeting, in order to underline this path of growth towards sustainable development, statements from companies in the region have been crucial relatively to sectors that, alongside the action of governments, are showing a clear interest upon increased green development. This is the case reported by Claudia Anselmi, CEO of Hung Yen Knitting & Dyeing Co., a leading company in the textile industry founded in Vietnam in 2008 by the Italian group Carvico, and remarked for its sustainable approach aimed at reducing waste and improving the efficiency of the production chain. However, for what other sectors are concerned, as pointed out by Alberto Maria Martinelli, President of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, green investments are necessary to achieve sustainable infrastructure and technologies. The case of the agricultural sector, which is increasingly threatened by natural disasters and in which digitalization can play a fundamental contribution through the use of predictive models, serves as an example. This phenomenon, known as “digital agriculture”, is becoming increasingly central in the debate over the protection of populations threatened by natural disasters, and is in line with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.

Therefore, there is no doubt that climate change has existed way before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, but only the latter has succeeded in disclosing the need for sustainable global change. For that reason, Italy and the ASEAN countries are showing that they are able to seize this opportunity through greater investment in technological innovation and an eco-friendly approach aimed at strengthening international cooperation.

The importance of the Pan-Asia Railway Network for Southeast Asia

La rete ferroviaria ad alta velocità che collegherà Kunming a Singapore contribuirà ad aumentare l’integrazione economica in Asia orientale

The Kunming-Singapore railway, also known as Pan-Asia Railway Network, is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects currently under construction in Asia and it was designed with the aim of connecting Southeast Asia to the southern provinces of China. Consisting of a huge network of railway lines, with some of them already operational, once completed the Pan-Asia Railway Network will connect the city of Kunming, capital of the Yunnan province and the economic center of Southern China, to Singapore, passing through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.

The project’s foundation dates back at the end of the 19th century, when French and British colonial powers agreed on a joint development transport network in order to connect southwestern China to the Indochinese peninsula. The goal was to facilitate the European’s export of goods and manufactured products to the region, as well as to exploit the huge mineral resources of Yunnan; however, the many conflicts that occurred over the next century dealt a severe blow to European commercial ambitions. After the Second World War, the newborn countries in the area were too busy to achieve their independence processes instead of building a functional transport system. Also due to the low economic importance of Southeast Asia which did not justify such a huge investment, the project was delayed for decades.

At the very beginning of the 21th century, China has emerged as the new superpower in the continent. All the countries in the area have benefited from its impetuous economic growth, so much so that in the early 2000s both ASEAN and China realized it was time to improve regional infrastructures. With the launch of the “Belt and Road Initiative” in 2013, the strategic relevance of Kunming-Singapore has further increased. The Chinese government has invested significant amounts of money with the ambition to connect the whole continent: Beijing is focusing strongly on Southeast Asia, directing almost a third of the total investments of the BRI towards ASEAN countries.

Several projects have been proposed to complete the Pan-Asia Railway Network, which today sees three giant routes under construction: the main section will link Kunming to Singapore via Bangkok; the eastern route from Kunming to Ho Chi Minh City via Hanoi; and the western route, from Kunming to Yangon in Myanmar, still in its planning stage.

The Pan-Asia Railway Network will have a significant geopolitical impact for the ASEAN countries located in the Indochinese peninsula: a project of this magnitude represents a unique opportunity to strengthen their economic ties within the region and with the rest of the international community. The approximately 5,500 km of future railway lines will contribute to increasing circulation of goods, people and ideas in East Asia in the next decades, generating a positive outcome for all the parts involved.

However, such a huge project doesn’t come without any significant drawbacks. In many cases there was no lack of delays or postponements in the implementation phase due to various structural difficulties. For instance, the complex geomorphology in Myanmar and Laos’s territory is causing a lot of difficulties for local engineers and, on the other hand, various ethnic groups living along the route of the new railways are protesting against the impact that construction sites will bring in their communities. In addition, existing rail networks in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia are still unable to ensure the functioning of a high-speed trains, partly because many railways are single-track and partly because they are poorly maintained. Cambodia in particular has the widest infrastructural gap, with much of the infrastructure built by the French colonial authority out of use for decades.

Also, the main concern for some Southeast Asian governments is that China may leverage investments to gain financial and political influence in addition to operational control. In fact, Beijing does not provide grants but loans to third countries, and it can therefore take over the project whether the receiving country is unable to repay its debt. United States are also concerned about a weakening of its relations with the ASEAN countries and in particular with Singapore, which is Washington's most faithful ally in the region and the one with the greatest strategic importance. The possibility of directly connecting Singapore to the People's Republic assigns to the project a strong geopolitical importance, because if Beijing succeeds in bringing the city-state into its orbit, it would weaken the American strategic primacy and it would have more opportunities to operate within the Indo-Pacific region.

Despite these concerns, Chinese infrastructure projects will continue to have great importance for the ASEAN countries, because they still rely on Beijing's investments and on the opportunities that the huge Chinese market can guarantee them. The Chinese giant’s firepower will be key to further developing infrastructure in the East Asian region, however Southeast Asian nations must balance their relations with China in order to avoid losing geopolitical weight while taking advantage of the economic opportunities arising from the relationship with Beijing.

By Diego Mastromatteo

RCEP: the agreement that will change the global balance of power

The signing of the free trade agreement, expected by the end of 2020, could boost confidence in international cooperation 

The idea of giving life to a mega regional trade agreement emerged, capable of bringing together almost all the actors in East Asia, emerged in 2012. The ASEAN members gathered at the 21st ASEAN summit in Cambodia outlined at the time a strategy based on commercial convergence to be adopted in the years to come, and which would end up with the negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement of massive dimensions and global importance, which is expected to be concluded by the end of 2020. 

Initially 16 nations were supposed to take part in the deal, but India decided to abandon the project due to conditions relating to the progressive reduction of customs tariffs. According to the Indian authorities, the new rules would have made the access to the domestic market for items of Chinese and Australian origin much easier, damaging local producers and leading to considerable economic imbalances. Thus, the adhering nations have been reduced to the 10 ASEAN members (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Despite New Delhi’s bail out, the RCEP is set to become the largest free trade agreement in the world. Indeed, the 15 participants of the partnership are among the major developing countries and they cover collectively about 30% of the world's GDP and population. At the same time, the RCEP is arranged as a broad and comprehensive agreement, capable of observing the different facets of economic action, including forms of cooperation between members and dispute resolution mechanisms in addition to mere commercial provisions. It aims, on one hand, to incorporate the commitments established by the World Trade Organization (WTO) for a deeper reduction of tariff barriers and, on the other, to integrate provisions beyond the WTO, expected to address other regulatory issues. Among these, are to be mentioned the chapters dedicated to small and medium-sized enterprises, e-commerce, dispute resolution mechanisms, intellectual property and the definition of procedures for interstate economic and technical cooperation.

From a political-economic point of view, the RCEP has all the potential to become a reference for commercial standards related to new free trade agreements in Asia and beyond. It is going to set a legal precedent for future regional and international relations. Beyond numbers and statistics, the conclusion of an agreement of this extent occurs at a crucial moment for global economic governance, in which multilateralism is increasingly giving way to nationalists and, occasionally, unilateral policies. The economic recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has, indeed, consolidated a trend that has shown itself to be growing in recent years, especially with regard to the United States, a still dominant player on the world scene. Just as the Trump presidency erects tariff barriers and reduces foreign trade in the name of "America First", part of the Asian continent is moving in a different direction, in support of multilateralism in line with an international economic order based on precise rules. 

Con la ratifica del RCEP, in aggiunta al Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, l’Asia orientale potrà fare affidamento su due giganteschi accordi commerciali che hanno il pregio di promuovere l’integrazione e la stabilità regionale e di rafforzare la centralità dell’ASEAN, tanto nell’Indopacifico, quanto nel panorama internazionale. Tali accordi combinati plasmeranno il più grande blocco commerciale del mondo, coprendo più di un terzo del PIL globale, e contribuendo a questo per circa 137 miliardi di dollari USA nel lungo periodo.

Nel contesto delle controversie commerciali tra Stati Uniti e Cina, il RCEP invia un forte segnale al mondo, manifestando a gran voce la volontà di apertura del continente asiatico. Non a caso, dopo la crisi finanziaria del 1997, la risposta dell’ASEAN alle turbolenze politiche e monetarie è stata quella di raddoppiare i suoi sforzi per un’integrazione economica sempre più inclusiva. La conseguenza finale potrebbe essere uno slittamento degli equilibri mondiali a favore dell’emisfero asiatico, rendendo il RCEP un’importante opportunità di cooperazione con Paesi finora ritenuti quasi secondari e un’occasione di ristabilire la fiducia collettiva nonostante la crescente instabilità del sistema globale. 

By Emilia Leban

The strategic partnership between EU and ASEAN

Deepening cooperation between the two regions will be beneficial to address common global challenges

The EU-ASEAN partnership dates back to 1972, when the European Economic Community became ASEAN’s first formal dialogue partner. Over the past 48 years, cooperation between the two actors has notably flourished with a view to encompass ever more strategic areas and to foster dialogue on economic, political, security, and socio-cultural issues.

These topics have become increasingly important in EU-ASEAN relations. Hence, in order to address them, the two regions promoted several initiatives to enhance coordination and cooperation based on common interests and values, among which technical level meetings periodical ministerial meetings, and major events, such as the High-Level Dialogues. 

Economic cooperation in particular has become relevant, as it is generating significant mutual benefits for both actors. Inter-regional trade and investment have significantly intensified in the last decades. To date, the EU is ASEAN’s second largest trading partner and ASEAN is the EU’s third largest trading partner. In 2018 the total merchandise trade was €237 billion, double the figure from 2008, while trade in services - €88.3 - was more than twice in 2017 compared to 2007. The EU remains the biggest provider of foreign direct investment in ASEAN with a value of €330 billion, based on 2017 figures. Furthermore, half of the EU cooperation funding to ASEAN for the 2014-2020 period has been allocated towards Southeast Asia’s economic integration and the ASEAN Economic Community, with specific projects aimed at promoting dialogue and cooperation in the economic and commercial domains. Singapore and Vietnam have already signed a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU and negotiations are gradually evolving with several other ASEAN member states in view of the possible definition of a region to region EU-ASEAN commercial agreement. Despite the impact of the global pandemic, both organizations appear to be determined to continue investing in economic cooperation in order to strengthen the resilience of the global system. 

On security issues, although coordination between the two actors has increased in the past years, significant progress still has to be achieved. The first relatively successful European Security and Defence Policy mission in Southeast Asia – the Aceh Monitoring Mission, focused on the peace process in Aceh, Indonesia – lacked adequate follow-up steps and wasn’t able to produce concrete results. However, the EU-ASEAN security cooperation has considerably expanded in the field of non-traditional security matters among which cybersecurity, de-radicalization, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats. In this regard, the EU Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Risk Mitigation Centers of Excellence initiative was set up with the purpose of strengthening coordination with partner countries, among which ASEAN members states, and reducing CBRN related risks at the national, regional and international level. For the future, a comprehensive EU-ASEAN partnership also emphasizing capacity building in security matters will be curial to enhance the interests of both actors in the Pacific region. 

Moreover, the two regions are working together to improve cooperation also in other fields, among which culture, education and innovation. Indeed, EU-ASEAN cooperation aims to build societies where emphasis is given to common well-being and social welfare. Amidst several initiatives, increased emphasis was posed to higher education, as one key thematic area of EU-ASEAN cooperation. Since 2014, over 5500 students and staff from Southeast Asian universities have travelled to Europe, funded by the EU and its member states, and nearly 3000 European students and staff have worked or studied in ASEAN under the Erasmus+ program. Academic cooperation also includes the Horizon 2020 program, which supports research and innovation with collaborative projects in the ASEAN region, covering areas that include health, food, environment and nanotechnology. 

As the two major regional integration projects in the world, ASEAN and the European Union appear to be natural partners, bonded by shared values and interests in enhancing peace, stability and prosperity for their citizens. Both are committed to address the emerging challenges with a multilateral approach focused on dialogue and cooperation. On January 22nd, 2019, the EU-ASEAN meeting of Foreign Ministers agreed to upgrade EU-ASEAN relations to the Strategic Partnership level, recognizing the impressive progress made in the implementation of the EU-ASEAN Plan of Action for 2018-2022. This will allow increased engagement on key regional issues as well as on the most pressing global challenges of this century, including responding to the climate emergency and the promotion of peace and security. Further effort will be needed in this delicate phase characterized by the global pandemic, in order to strengthen relations between the two regions and achieve concrete results in adjusting the globalization process to benefit as many citizens as possible while respecting the environment and protecting the most vulnerable.

By Ngoc lien Tran 

Agri-food and Made in Italy at the core of trade with ASEAN

Italian excellences attract new consumers in South-East Asia

On 13 October, following the meeting regarding the new opportunities for the agri-food supply chain of Emilia-Romagna in ASEAN, it emerged with a certain degree of consensus how much the countries of the region are fascinated by the brand "Made in Italy" and by our nation.  

The new Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Vietnam, which entered into force on the 1° of August, promotes new opportunities for trade interactions between the two regions and underlines the increased attention that the country has shown towards Italian products. In this regard, the creation of an FTA between the EU and ASEAN would be useful to eliminate phenomena of Italian Sounding. The latter is an unfair widespread practice by foreign companies that offer reproductions of Italian food and wine excellences with the aim of attracting new consumers. 

Ms Formentini, a member of the ASEAN Desk at the European Commission, explained how to recognize these products by paying particular attention to means of identification such as PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) and PDO (Protected Designation of Origin). Italy is the European country with the largest number of agri-food products with Protected Designation of Origin and Protected Geographical Indication recognized by the European Union, comprising 299 products. Even today, there are products that continue to receive the coveted awards, among which the Lucan Oil that brings up to 18 products of excellence from Basilicata.

The ASEAN countries are not unresponsive to these goals and show great interest in agri-food products of Italian origin on grounds of their renowned international reputation. However, the risks of free trade in substitute goods should not be underestimated. Opening up barriers and increasing imports of goods may have negative consequences for indigenous products belonging to the same production chains. Just think about the opinions that circulated in 2017 about the consequences of the export of buffalo mozzarella from Italy on the trade of fresh cheeses in Canada or the possible imitation of the famous dairy from Campania after the entry into force of CETA. These safeguards must also be guaranteed for PGI and PDO products from Emilia-Romagna. For instance, after the crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the region has shown great interest in seizing the opportunities arising from any free trade agreement in order to expand its network of commercial contacts and ensure an agile recovery for companies. Entrepreneurs are displaying great capacity in reaction to this critical moment and a strong sense of openness to a constantly developing region of the world.

ASEAN is one of the few areas in the world to have shown readiness to manage the health emergency and is similarly willing to contact new interlocutors. At this regard, it was held on 9 August in Thailand the fair "Food and Hotel" organized by Bellavita Expo with the participation of the Italian-Thai Chamber of Commerce. It is the main trade fair in the hospitality and gastronomy sectors in Thailand and Southeast Asia, during which the best Italian food and beverage products were described and advertised for over 29,000 professionals. The event wanted to give a decisive boost to signal the growth of the food and hospitality sector in Thailand, with the hope of offering exceptional opportunities to Italian companies to enrich their knowledge with professionals in the sector by promoting their businesses on the ground.

Therefore, the latest developments create optimistic forecasts of the popularity of products of Italian origin and provide hope for the progress of trade relations between the EU and Southeast Asia, as well as the spread of Italian food and wine excellences in the world.

By Hania Hashim 

Off on the Phad Thai foot

Southeast Asia is increasingly establishing itself in Italy and Europe thanks to its rich culinary offer.

“Don't eat anything your great-great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food” said the American writer Michael Pollan. Who better than Italians, always ready to criticize any foreign dish, to agree? And yet, in the latest years Southeast Asian cuisine is overcoming geographical boundaries and winning over even the most sceptical hearts. Not only are countless Thai and Vietnamese restaurants opening all around Italy, but even new TV series are being made to portray the scents, taste, and colours of Asian dishes. But which are the most popular in Europe and Italy today, that even your great-great grandmother would be fond of?

One could fill lots of book trying to illustrate the richness and variety of ingredients in Vietnamese cuisine, and it still wouldn’t be enough. When France colonised Vietnam and its neighbours in 1887, it formed the Indochinese Union and heavily influenced this region’s cuisine. But before that, the culinary heritage of Vietnam was influenced by China, which provided a fundamental contribution to the birth of Vietnamese popular dishes. Wontons, wheat noodles, chili peppers and corn can be found in both countries’ culinary heritage. When the French arrived, the ingredients list expanded to include potatoes, asparagus, onions, coffee, and many others. And today, two of the most beloved typical Vietnamese dishes both by locals and Europeans are the outcome of French influence!

The first one is Bánh mì, a delicious baguette-shaped bread made with rice flour instead of wheat flour. Fillings can be very fancy, but the most cherished one is a combination of grilled meat, coriander, pickled vegetables and sauces. The second dish is the world-renowned Pho: a soup of Vietnamese rice noodles and meat broths. It is common belief that the word Pho (pronounced fuh) derives from the French pot au feu (stew). The presence of beef meat, rarely seen in other typical Asian dishes, is further evidence of the influence left by the French colonisation.

As far as Thai cuisine is concerned, the birth of new Thai restaurants everywhere in Italy (not only in Rome and Milan) is a clear sign of its increasing success. Besides the classic Phad Thai (stir-fried rice noodles with vegetables, eggs, roasted peanuts, fish sauce, tamarind juice, garlic, chilli pepper, lime and palm sugar), there are many more creative combinations of flavours that are winning hearts in the West to the extent that Thai Massaman curry, the “king of curry”, was awarded first place in the CNN’s “The world's 50 best foods” list. The reason? “Even the packet sauce you buy from the supermarket can make the most delinquent of cooks look like a Michelin potential”.

While it is still hard to find Indonesian or Singaporean restaurants in Italy, the interest toward Southeast Asian countries’ cuisine seems to be a fast-growing trend. Suffice it to say that many other dishes in the aforementioned list come from ASEAN countries. Even Netflix, the media giant always very careful about its viewers’ needs, own two series that frequently portrait the cuisine in Bali, Yogyakarta, Cebu, and other Southeast Asian locations: Street Food Asia and Chef’s Table.

All encouraging signs that show once again the increasing interest in ASEAN countries’ history, traditions, and rich culinary offer in Europe and worldwide.

By Valentina Beomonte Zobel

Regional security in ASEAN

In order to tackle the emerging geopolitical challenges, ASEAN should move towards deeper forms of cooperation in defence and security 

The Bangkok declaration, founding document of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, states that regional peace and stability are among the two main goals of the organization. However, the structure of the Association itself somehow hampers the process of advancing significantly towards a common security and defence community. 

ASEAN was born from the union of a series of cardinal principles on which the trust among member states was built. This approach - called The ASEAN Way – is founded on the recognition and adherence to the principle of national sovereignty, which entails non-interference in internal affairs, abstention from the use of force to settle disputes and unanimity in the decision-making processes. Security and common defense have thus always been sensitive issues in the region, and progress in these directions tended to be modest.

In the last decades, Indonesia has been one of the main actors advocating for accelerating the integration process in this field. In 2003, at the 9th ASEAN Summit in Bali, the Indonesian government reached its goal of including the ASEAN Security Community among the three founding pillars of the organization. The ASEAN Political-Security Community – as it is named since 2015 - represents a notable step towards for member states, establishing a useful platform to solve disputes and to encourage dialogue and cooperation in defense and foreign policy. Since 2010 then, meetings between ASEAN Defence Ministers with the counterparts of different international partners, among which China, US, Japan and Australia, have acquired always more importance and centrality. 

Despite these last years’ progresses, ASEAN still struggles to push forward a concrete agenda in strengthening regional cooperation in defense. As for the European Union, also ASEAN member states are skeptical about deeper forms of integration in the military sector. The current level of cooperation involves consultation with partners and dialogue, yet member states are still reluctant to the formulation of a common long-term strategy. On the delicate issue of the South China Sea, which involves several ASEAN nations including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, the long-term common strategy that would be necessary to meet the challenge is struggling to emerge. 

Today, in an evolving and uncertain geopolitical context, ASEAN countries need to deepen and intensify their internal discussions on common security. The role of the US in the Pacific is rapidly changing, China is moving in the South China Sea and the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the regional and global equilibrium. The economic and geopolitical dimensions are always more interrelated, and it is thus time for ASEAN to also invest in the common security and defense sector. 

Despite the outbreak of the global pandemic, 2020 presents particularly interesting opportunities in terms of defence for South-East Asian countries. Two ASEAN’s countries, Indonesia and Vietnam, are members of the UN Security Council, which represents a unique opportunity to advance the priorities of the region in the most influential diplomatic arenas. The South-East Asia region is acquiring increasingly more economic and commercial relevance at the global level, and needs now to start building common geopolitical instruments to tackle the increasing challenges. It will be therefore essential for ASEAN to continue its course towards the establishment of a concrete defense and security community, with the goal of guaranteeing the principles of peace and stability that underlie the Association itself. 

By Tullio Ambrosone and Luca Menghini

2nd Digital Round Table on economic relations between Italy and ASEAN

At the center of the discussion technology and innovation, with a focus on investment opportunities in ASEAN Countries

On Wednesday 30th September, the 2nd round table of the Digital High Level Dialogue on the relations between Italy and ASEAN took place, organized by The European House Ambrosetti in collaboration with the Italy ASEAN Association. Now that Italy has officially become an ASEAN Development Partner, the importance of the South-East Asian region for Italian trade and exports is growing. In particular in the fields of manufacturing, technology and connectivity, Italy and ASEAN now have a unique opportunity to advance relations and achieve important common goals. 

Preponderant since the outbreak of the pandemic has been the theme of the digital revolution. During the most acute phases of the crisis, the role of connectivity has been fundamental to uphold a resilient approach, allowing to not interrupt the production cycle and pushing companies to rethink their development models. Despite the overall decline in economic activity, the digital sector grew significantly during the pandemic and is now one of the most dynamic sectors, especially in Southeast Asia. More and more companies are aiming to expand the offer of digital services in the region, investing in artificial intelligence and big data, and ASEAN governments seem willing to support this process to reap the benefits of the digital revolution. In the post-pandemic phase, it will therefore be essential to increase investments in the digital sector in order to foster the economic recovery. 

In particular, during the event, several speakers highlighted the need to diversify investments in technology to exploit all the possibilities that this sector can offer. Particularly interesting was the theme of smart-cities and the technological development of urban centers. As densely populated countries, several members of ASEAN find it very difficult to manage the increasingly chaotic and dynamic megalopolises of the region. In this sense, technology offers extremely interesting tools, from mobility management to infrastructure, energy supply and the food sector. According to several experts who intervened, more investment in digitization will be crucial to increase the competitiveness and productivity of companies, and to create more innovative and sustainable social ecosystems. The space to intervene is vast, and Italian companies should also focus on the rich markets of Southeast Asia to diversify investments and ride the growth wave of ASEAN countries. 

Finally, particular attention has been paid to the situation of the aviation sector, one of the most affected by the consequences of the pandemic. The entry bans for foreign citizens imposed in many countries during the most serious phase of the health emergency, together with the restrictive measures still in place to contain the spread of the virus, have put a strain on the airlines and therefore the entire aviation sector. Among the speakers, Emanuele Lourier, Sales Manager of Leonardo, presented two possible scenarios for the near future of this sector. The first would see a recovery of air traffic starting from 2022, with a gradual return to 2019 levels; the second, more pessimistic, foresees a recovery of the sector in 2023, with a return to effective growth only in 2024. However, despite the difficulties of recent months and the challenges of the coming years, air traffic in Southeast Asia is expected to grow by several percentage points over the next ten years, in line with population growth. This sector, too, can therefore still offer interesting opportunities for companies that are willing to focus on the long term. 

Despite the pandemic is complicating international relations, Italy and ASEAN continue to focus on multilateralism and free trade to get out of this crisis. Only through greater forms of cooperation the two regions can relaunch growth and build an innovative and sustainable economic model. The next years will be fundamental in this sense, it will be up to governments and companies to lay the foundations for recovery, aware of the potential that cooperation between Italy and ASEAN can offer.

 Article edited by editorial Staff