Italy, Asia and botany: a long history

The year 2020 marks the centenary of the death of Odoardo Beccari, a scientist who has remarkably contributed to the South East Asia’s knowledge of biodiversity 

The 2020 marks two important events which connect Italy and South East Asia. The 500 years from the circumnavigation of the globe by the Portuguese Ferdinando Magellano, with the report by the Italian Antonio Pigafetta. The diary documented the cities, people and costumes of South East Asia. Moreover 2020 marks the death of the Italian Botanist Odoardo Beccari.

Odoardo Beccari is not particularly known outside the scientific circle, however his articles on the description of new plant species made him one of the most relevant tropical botanists between the nineteenth and twentieth century. His reports and articles have inspired the milieu, names, and adventures of the pirate Sandokan, written by Emilio Salgari.

Originally from Tuscany, with the Marchese Giacomo Doria, organized their first trip to explore the land of Sarawak (Borneo). In the journey they stop in Sri Lanka, Singapore, and arrived in Kuching, capital of Sarawak, on the 19th June 1865, as guests of the Raja James Brooke. The two explorers moved to mount Battang, approximately 300 m asl, starting their collections. Other explorations followed in South East Asia and Africa, with other important Italian scientists. The Beccari collection are today deposited at the National Herbarium in Florence while the zoological and anthropological collections are exhibited at the Genoa Museum.

For the centenary of his death, several events will be held. The National Herbarium, in Florence, will inaugurate an exposition on the life and works of Beccari (25 October 2020 - 28 February 2021). The Italian version of most famous Beccari Book Nelle foreste di Borneo, has been reprinted. Nelle foreste di Borneo

Kuching (Sarawak) where the twenty-year-old Beccari arrived to start his work in the tropical forest, has planned four events to commemorate the botanist. The 25th of July the Minister of Culture, Art and Tourism of Sarawak has inaugurated the Beccari Discovery trail, 3.2 km on the Batang Mountain, where Beccari built his base camp (Villa Vallombrosa). In September the ‘Hidden Valley of the Rattans’ in Kubah National Park will be inaugurated, in collaboration with the Sarawak Forestry Department. For 2021 (some events have been postponed due to the pandemic) a conference in honour of Odoardo Beccari titled ‘Wandering in the forest of Borneo’ has been organized in collaboration with Sarawak Biodiversity Centre.

Beccari described his travels and observations in the book ‘Wanderings in the Great Forest of Borneo’, which became the only scientific italian best-seller known abroad. In that book, Beccari wrote that in the future, with economic development in Malaysia, those forests would have been studied by local botanists. Today, local botanists are celebrating the Italian botanist for his great contribution on the understanding of Borneo biodiversity.

Article written by Daniele Cicuzza 

The flourishing relation between Italy and ASEAN

After Germany, also Italy (and France) becomes ASEAN's Development Partner, highlighting the increasing interest for Southeast Asia in the European continent

The trade war between the United States and China, together with the severe consequences of the pandemic, are redesigning the global trade and geopolitical landscape. In Europe as well as in Asia, political elites are looking for new commercial partnerships with the aim of dealing with the upheavals in the global economic system of recent years. In this regard, Italy and Europe are looking with increasing interest at the Indo-Pacific region, considered a young, dynamic and appealing region. 

Since the first visit of President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella to the ASEAN Secretariat in 2015, Italy has been committed to strengthen relations with the region. Through the organization of meetings and events, representatives of Italian and ASEAN institutions have worked hard to foster dialogue and trade exchanges between the two parties. On September 9th of this year, Italy officially became ASEAN's Development Partner, crowning a process of rapprochement successfully carried out in recent years. In addition, the recent entry into force of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (after the agreement with Singapore in 2019) represents a further positive factor that signals the ongoing process of cooperation between Italy, Europe and South-East Asia. 

Also from the commercial point of view, relations between Italy and ASEAN have grown in recent years. According to data from the ASEAN General Secretariat, in the period between 2009 and 2019 Italian exports to ASEAN countries have increased from 7.14 to 13.29 billion dollars, while imports have increased from 5.27 to 9.65 billion dollars. Among the main Italian goods exported, machinery, equipment and chemical products, while ASEAN countries mainly exported to Italy computers, electronic and agri-food products. However, it is worth noting that the volume of trade between Italy and ASEAN is still quite low, especially in relation to other European countries. The ASEAN bloc is Italy's 14th trading partner in terms of exports, imports and foreign direct investments, while Italy is more than 20th among ASEAN partners, well behind Germany, France, the United Kingdom and even the Netherlands and Switzerland. 

In light of these data, it is clear that the news of the partnership between Italy and ASEAN signals the intention of the Italian political establishment to catch up with its European partners and global competitors. After all, ASEAN is one of the most dynamic regions in the world, with a population of over 600 million inhabitants, the fifth largest economy in the world and an average growth rate of around 5% of total GDP in the last 10 years. 

This newborn partnership is therefore not a point of arrival, but a starting point for improving and deepening the political, economic and cultural relations between Italy and Southeast Asian countries. In the coming months, it will be necessary to monitor and evaluate progresses in order to understand the scope of this process and to seize the countless opportunities that will emerge. 

Italy becomes ASEAN’s Development Partner

After Berlin, also Rome and Paris start looking to South-East Asia for its’ immense potential

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) granted Italy the status of Development Partner of the organization on the 9th of September.

In a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi di Maio, ASEAN Secretary General Dato Lim Jock Hoi announced that, being close to the 53rd ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting, Italy has been granted the status of Development Partner. During the meeting, also France obtained the role of Development Partner. Rome and Paris follow Berlin in deepening their relations with the Association.

Enrico Letta, President of the Italy-ASEAN Association, comments on this important achievement: "It is a crucial moment for relations between ASEAN and our country. The news highlights the great work done in recent years by the entire country system to deepen the link between two areas that are geographically and culturally distant, but which share fundamental values such as free trade and multilateralism. Congratulations to the Foreign Ministry, to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and to President Mattarella, the first G7 Head of State to visit the General Secretariat of ASEAN in 2015. Today, ASEAN is already the fifth largest global economic power and the projections clearly display that by 2050 it will reach the fourth place, following China, India and the United States."

The Development Partnership is a special relationship that aims at strengthening the cooperation between Italy and ASEAN, and enhance the coordination of joint projects aimed at enhancing the potential of the two regions. As Development Partners, the ASEAN Secretariat and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will work together in areas such as connectivity, fight against climate change and sustainable development, management of natural disasters, protection of cultural heritage, strengthening the role of women, peacekeeping and combatting Covid-19.

Alessia Mosca, Secretary General of the Italy-ASEAN Association, underlines the importance of creating new alliances for Italy and the European economic system: "The new global scenario gives even more value to the relationship between Italy and ASEAN, which was strengthened considerably in recent years. Thanks to this recognition and thanks to the results achieved by the European trade policy negotiations, Italian companies can now compete better in one of the most dynamic areas of the planet."

In the coming months, the Italian Embassy in Jakarta will have the task of coordinating with the ASEAN Secretariat to follow up the efforts made so far and further develop the partnership.

Article edited by editorial Staff

Germany pushes the EU towards South-East Asia

By adopting new foreign policy guidelines, Germany displays its strategy toward Asia: less reliance on China and greater attention to the countries of the Indo-Pacific region.a

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear: Europe should reduce its reliance on Chinese supply chains and strengthen its ties with Indo-Pacific countries to relaunch free trade and multilateralism at the global level. Following France, the German government has approved new foreign policy guidelines that give priority to partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

This is nothing new. Trump’s administration as well is trying to bring froward similar foreign policy maneuvers in order to face Chinese ambitions in the context of the ongoing political and economic confrontation between the two superpowers. However, if the attention of the United States of Trump is centered on security and unilateralism with a quasi-mercantilist approach, on the other hand, Merkel’s Germany aims to relaunch multilateralism and free trade by strengthening relations with ASEAN and other countries of the region, among which Japan, South Korea and Australia.

The idea of the German Government, which has become increasingly popular among European governments and institutions, is that it will be essential to draw up a coherent common foreign policy, focused on the centrality of multilateralism and free trade, as opposed to Trump’s unilateralism in the United States or China’s hegemonic ambitions. In order to do this, it will be necessary to invest in relations with international organizations such as ASEAN or with free-trade-oriented Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea or Indonesia.

The idea of the German Government, which has become increasingly popular among European governments and institutions, is that it will be essential to draw up a coherent common foreign policy, focused on the centrality of multilateralism and free trade, as opposed to Trump’s unilateralism in the United States or China’s hegemonic ambitions. In order to do this, it will be necessary to invest in relations with international organizations such as ASEAN or with free-trade-oriented Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea or Indonesia.

Greater openness towards the Indo-Pacific region could therefore contribute to reinvigorate the potential of the European Union. The German Government will try to encourage European partners to place greater emphasis on the geopolitical dimension of the EU, assigning a pivotal role to the Indo-Pacific region and to ASEAN in particular. Therefore, in the new and complex international scenario, it once again appears that East Asian countries will assume an increasing weight and become an always greater geopolitical and commercial focal point. 

Article written by Tullio Ambrosone e Hania Hashim

The potential of the digital economy in South-East Asia:a focus on Grab and GoJek

Starting with ride-hailing, the two companies now aim to monopolize the digital market by expanding their services

Restrictive measures imposed to counter the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are fostering the potential of the digital economy at the global level in all areas of consumption. In South-East Asia, this dynamic is further reinforced by the remarkable increase of digital consumers in recent years, achieved through a more widespread access to the internet across the different countries of the region. Today, big local companies are fully aware of this evolution and are actively investing in the digital market, which is expected to be worth around $200 billion over the next five years. 

Particularly interesting are the cases of Grab and Gojek, tech start-up leaders of the ride-hailing sector. Born in 2010 in Jakarta offering support services for motorcyclists, Gojek has then expanded its range of services reaching to date a value of $12.5 billion. Grab, founded in Malaysia in June 2012, has grown rapidly throughout South-East Asia, with a current valuation of nearly $14 billion. Both started out in the mobility sector, but then they gradually expanded their service network from car-sharing and home delivery to financial and insurance services. The goal of both companies is to become the first everyday super app by developing an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, drivers and customers connected through the app, in order to meet all the needs of everyday life.

In particular, Grab is developing digital cash-less payment tools such as GrabPay, which allows to make payments using internal credits of the app. In addition the company also offers services such as GrabFood and GrabFresh, that allow to order groceries online. Grab has also begun working with governments and small businesses locally to digitize traditionally offline segments of the agri-food ecosystem, bringing them on its platform. The company recently launched GrabMart, GrabFood, GrabExpress and GrabAssistant, establishing relationships with over 78,000 retailers and 115,000 drivers and riders in March and April 2020. In the last twelve months, Grab has achieved a 21% increase in online revenue and contributed approximately $8.5 billion to the ASEAN economy.

Also GoJek is expanding its business into several consumer sectors, leveraging the exponential growth of the digital sector. GoFood, GoClean, GoAuto, GoLaudry and GoGlam are just some of the services launched in recent years, from food delivery to laundry services. In addition, the company is heavily investing to offer training courses in business management, finance and information technology to over 35,000 entrepreneurs with the aim of supporting the digital transformation also within civil society.

Both companies therefore represent concrete examples of one of the most significant trends that is characterizing the South-East Asian market. With a young and dynamic population, the region is expected to observe a considerable increase in demand for digital services, creating space for the proactivity of innovative tech companies able to ride the wave of digitalization.

Article written by Tullio Ambrosone e Gabriel Zurlo Sconosciuto

India and ASEAN, an immense potential

Despite a relatively late start, the relations between India and ASEAN have become more florid and benefit from an unparallel growth potential..

The relations between India and ASEAN are relatively recent, especially if compared to the longer relations that countries of the South-East Asian region have established with greater regional and global players since the 70s, such as United States, Japan and the European Union. The choice made by the ASEAN countries to admit India as a fully recognized interlocutor occurred only in 1995, after a long delay and rugged debates among ASEAN countries. Indeed, member states of islamic culture, especially Malaysia and Indonesia, asked for the inclusion of Pakistan alongside that of India. However, the rest of the ASEAN countries revealed great concern about the fact that the participation of both countries to ASEAN meetings could have led to tensions within the Association. In the end, thanks to the refined political mediation enacted by Singapore, only India was allowed to join. Nevertheless, since that moment, all ASEAN member states, even the most reticent, have started to reconsider the economic and geopolitical importance of India for South-East Asia’s strategic interests. 

Up until now, India represents the sixth largest trading and economic partner of ASEAN and, in turn, ASEAN is the third main economic partner of India, following the EU and US and followed by China, registering a total exchange of commodities of over 96 billion USD in 2019. After the signing of the India-ASEAN free-trade agreement in 2009, the commercial interchange between the two blocks has been constantly growing year by year and the mid-term ambitious goal is to reach a bilateral exchange volume of over 200 billion USD by 2022. The enormous collective base of over 1,8 billion potential consumers who inhabit the two regions, among which many are part of a rapidly growing middle-class, offers and immense and unparalleled potential for economic and commercial development, not only in Asia but also at a global level. However, the growth opportunities between India and ASEAN are not only related to trade. The Indian culture had and continues to have a great ascendent over the inhabitants of South-East Asian countries. After all, in the past, the Indian civilization laid cultural foundations in the majority of the ASEAN countries, similarly to the influence of the Greek-Roman civilization over western culture and, still today, Indian soft power, with its leading cinematographic Bollywood industry, exercises a crucial role in the South-East Asian region. The current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has expressed the intention to employ this strong cultural bond, which connects India and the ASEAN countries, in order to forge an alliance that goes well beyond mere economic and commercial interests. And to use Modi’s words, “the India-ASEAN partnership may be recent, yet the connections entailed by India with the South-East Asian region go back to more that two thousand year ago”. The leaders of South-East Asian countries have answered with great enthusiasm to Modi’s proposition to work jointly for the development of deeper forms of cooperation between India and ASEAN, and they have likewise conveyed their wish to deepen strategic bonds with the Indian giant. The proof was the 20th meeting of the ASEAN-India Joint Cooperation Committee, which took place online on the 12th of June, during which representatives of both regions have agreed on funding several common projects, such as a credit line from the Indian government of over 1 billion USD in order to sustain infrastructural and digital connectivity projects between South-East Asian countries and India.

Despite a relatively slow start, relations between the two regions are now in excellent health and are steadily improving. The opportunities for growth, both on the economic-commercial side and on the geopolitical one, are immense and a further deepening of the relations between the South-East Asian countries and India will only lead to a greater balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Article edited by Andrea Dugo. 

The ASEAN of the future

Entrepreneurial and dynamic, the new generations of South-East Asia are ready to take a leading role

According to data from 2018, about 60% of the population of the ASEAN countries is under 35 years of age; a percentage that is destined to grow and that indicates how the young people of South-East Asia occupy a considerable role, not only in the political and social space but also in the economic one, making up a large part of the workers and consumers of the region. What horizons and opportunities does ASEAN offer them? How can young people shape the ASEAN of the future?

The United Nations Youth Development Index (YDI) considers several indicators to measure the economic, social and cultural development of young people between the age of 15 and 29, ranging from 0 (no development for young people) to 1 (great opportunities for young people). According to the latest available data, in 2015 the overall index of ASEAN countries was 0.6, a promising and indicative figure of good growth conditions for young people in the region. In the period between 2011 and 2015, the country with the highest development index was Singapore, followed in order by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. This shows how, although young people are playing an increasingly important role in South East Asian societies, the prospects and resources they can access differ from country to country.

From an economic point of view, despite the differences in education performance, the trends in behaviour and consumption among young people in ASEAN have similar characteristics. The younger generations show a strong interest in innovation, entrepreneurship and technology. The digital market is growing enormously, with an expected value of $150 billion by 2025, up from $44 billion in 2019. Young people are consuming and socialising more and more online, and many companies in the region, such as the giants Grab and Gojek, are intercepting the new ways in which young people consume and socialise and making big profits. As far as job orientation is concerned, the under-35s in ASEAN show a strong motivation to develop new skills that will make them ready to face the challenges of innovation and technological changes of the future. They are enterprising, dynamic, open to new sectors and new job opportunities, particularly in technology and digital development. 

Regarding their political involvement in the region, significant progress has been made through local and international meetings and summits, such as the India-ASEAN Youth Dialogue 2020 or the ASEAN Youth Interface with ASEAN Leaders, held in the margins of the 36th ASEAN Summit on the 26th of June. These meetings aimed at promoting the inclusion of young people in the decision-making processes, as were also an opportunity to focus on the perspectives of the younger generation. In particular, the ASEAN Youth Interface with ASEAN Leaders 2020 offered twenty young people in the region the opportunity to virtually meet their heads of state and government, thus laying the foundations for an open and lasting discussion on key issues such as innovation, entrepreneurship, industry 4.0 and the environment. This and several other initiatives demonstrate how ASEAN seeks to encourage dialogue with young people and increase their involvement in the decision-making processes.

It is therefore essential for the development and for the economy of the ASEAN countries to exploit the enormous potential offered by the new generations, investing in human capital and offering them training and employment opportunities. With such a young and dynamic population, South East Asia is a candidate to become one of the protagonists of the post-Covid-19 recovery phase. 

Article edited by editorial Staff 

Japan and ASEAN: back to basics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article edited by Andrea Dugo.

Asian Film Festival 2020

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

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

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

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

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


China and ASEAN, from mutual skepticism to gradual cooperation

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

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

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

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

High Level Dialogue on ASEAN-Italy economic relations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article edited by editorial Staff

United States and ASEAN, a dynamic relationship

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

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

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

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

Article edited by Andrea Dugo.