In September 2020, Italy became an ASEAN development partner. Bilateral relations will intensify in various areas: political, security, economic. Bilateral cooperation has all the potential to create opportunities for a shared future
Italy has excellent political and economic relations with ASEAN. On Wednesday 7th July, during a CeSI webinar, guests praised the intensification of bilateral cooperation, in view of the development partnership launched last year. In September 2020, Italy obtained the title of "ASEAN Development Partner", which implies greater proximity between the parties on various areas: connectivity, fight against climate change and sustainable development, management of natural disasters, protection of cultural heritage, strengthening the role of women, peacekeeping and limiting the spread of Covid-19. Italy has decided, with foresight, to enhance relations with the countries of Southeast Asia by focusing on multilevel cooperation.
During the webinar, the Ambassador of the Republic of Indonesia to Italy, Esti Andayani, noted that this is a golden period for Italy-ASEAN relations. Despite the outbreak of the health crisis, development cooperation has not waned. “No one is safe until everyone is safe. One of the lessons to be learned is that we should cooperate more in achieving sustainable development”, the Ambassador stressed. Although the pandemic has taken its toll, causing a sudden contraction in international trade, Andayani is optimistic about the future. The Director-General of the Foreign Ministry Luca Sabbatucci described Italy's approach to cooperation with the region. The Italian paradigm consists of the strengthening of plans for sustainable development, the green and digital economy and green energy. The bilateral efforts are based on the awareness that the two economies can support each other politically, diplomatically, culturally and commercially.
Italy has excellent relations with the 10 countries of the bloc and enjoys a very positive image among the locals. As Romeo Orlandi, the Vice-President of the Italy-ASEAN Association, points out "Italy has excellent bilateral relations, unpolluted by post-colonial grudges. There are no political tensions, much less military or security-related ones. The image of Italy as a country that expresses art and culture, where the quality of life is high and prestigious consumer goods are produced, is also strong among consumers. The lifestyle, cuisine and sporting events are appreciated”.
This attraction is mutual. Southeast Asia is appreciated by the Italian population for its culture, cuisine and traditions, but businesses recognise the value of relations with ASEAN too. However, stereotyped perception of the region still prevails, due to sometimes inaccurate media narratives and a fascination with the exotic that derives from the experience of European colonialism. As Giuseppe Gabusi of the Turin World Affairs Institute (TWAI) observes, "between the beaches of Thailand and Bali, the Buddhist temples of Myanmar and the shopping malls of Singapore, it is difficult to convey the real image of these countries". The approach needs to be transformed, to look at the partnership with ASEAN as a mutually fruitful interchange. As the EU Ambassador to India Ugo Astuto pointed out, the proliferation of think tanks and research institutes is recently contributing to a deeper understanding of Southeast Asia.
Italy also acknowledges ASEAN as a "positive example of multilateralism based on respect for international law", and aims to deepen relations with the region also in the security field. Shortly after accepting his candidacy as a Development Partner, a meeting was held between the representatives of the parties to discuss issues related to transnational security. On this occasion, Italy committed to working with ASEAN countries on capacity-building operations against terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking and cybercrime.
Regional emerging markets have shown great dynamism, especially in tackling the difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In this period, bilateral trade between Italy and the Asian bloc has continued, although it has undergone a negative downturn. According to data from the International Trade Center, the volume of trade in 2020 amounted to about 18.7 billion euros, with Italy in slight trade surplus (10.3 billion in exports in 2020). Italy is the fifth-largest European economy in terms of exports to Southeast Asia, after Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, while Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia are the main trading partners, especially for machinery and electronic equipment. About 1.8 billion euros of products exported from Italy arrive in Singapore and are then sorted in other East Asian countries. ASEAN is the source of about 2.3% of Italian imports (8.4 billion out of a total of 370 billion in 2020), and destination of about 1.7% of exports (7.3 billion out of a total of 434 billion in 2020).
Multilevel cooperation will have to develop simultaneously in these areas: political, security and socio-economic. The proliferation of exchange opportunities can contribute to greater mutual understanding and create the right coordinates for a shared future.