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.

Covid-19: the challenge for Indonesia

How the world’s largest archipelago is dealing with the pandemic

On July 1st, Indonesia ranked as the country with the highest number of Covid-19 cases in ASEAN, with more than 55,000 confirmed cases. The most impacted city is the capital Jakarta, which is also one of the most populated cities in South-East Asia. Compared to its neighboring partners, the country opted for a different approach to address the pandemic. With the aim of keeping the nation’s economic activities afloat, the central government decided not to impose a lockdown policy, opting to apply a ‘large-scale social restriction’ instead.

Three months after the implementation of this plan, several provinces in Indonesia – Jakarta included – started to ease some social restriction measures. Workplaces, educational institutions, worship places, and public transportation, are gradually reopening, despite still adhering to a strict health protocol. If a new cluster of infection will break out, an ‘emergency brake’ policy will be put in place to stop the reopening of these places.

Although the government did not apply a nationwide lockdown, the country’s economy has not been immune to the economic side-effects of the pandemic. According to Statistics Indonesia (BPS), in the first quarter of 2020, Indonesia’s GDP grew only by 3%, the lowest record since 2001. However, based on the forecast conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Indonesia is one of the three G20 countries – alongside China and India – that is not expected to go through an economic recession this year, with a projected GDP growth of 0.2%. 

Currently, the government has put forward a total of 677.2 trillion rupiah (equivalent to 42.7 billion euro) as part of the national economic recovery program. This program will be essential in supporting the healthcare sector, increasing the coverage of social protection schemes, expanding unemployment benefits, and providing tax incentives as well as credit for businesses. Indonesia is also maintaining strong bilateral and multilateral relations in the effort to face the ongoing crisis, not only within ASEAN countries but also with other actors such as China, Japan and South Korea. Hence, if the global markets regain momentum in 2021, Indonesia might return on its growth trajectory: a GDP increase of 5%, according to a report from the Asian Development Bank.

Despite the uncertain times that Indonesia – and the entire world – are experiencing, the government is doing its utmost to reboot the economy. The challenges the country is facing are demanding but the dynamism of the Indonesian economy could prove to be successful in overcoming these difficult times. It will be crucial for Indonesia to invest in its youth and the growing digital sector to turn the crisis into a new phase of development.

 

Article edited by Rizka Diandra 

Singapore and the Covid-19 emergency

Singapore’s experience with the virus reveals the complexity of the pandemic and the importance of a cautious approach to its management.

On June 25th the Italy-ASEAN Association organized a webinar on Singapore and its response to the pandemic with the Italian Ambassador in Singapore, Raffaele Langella and the President of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Simon Tay. 

When Singapore confirmed the first case of Covid-19 on January 23rd, the government rapidly implemented effective measures that contributed to contain the virus and significantly limit the number of infected people. Subsequently, between February and March, Singapore experienced a second moderate wave of contagion, attributable to flows of Singaporeans repatriated from abroad. Until the beginning of April, Singapore had less than 1000 cases and only 3 deaths due to the virus. However, in April, Singapore was hit by a third wave of Covid-19. This time the vast majority of cases occurred among the more than 300,000 migrant workers living in large dorms at the outskirts of the city, and the number of infections increased rapidly within a few weeks. As a result of this new surge, the Singaporean government was forced to impose more restrictive measures on the movement of citizens. Since 7 April, Singaporean citizens have had to comply with preventive measures called circuit breakers, which include the closure of all non-essential activities and the obligation to respect social distancing measures.circuit breaker​, che prevedono la chiusura di tutte le attività non essenziali e l’obbligo di rispettare il distanziamento sociale. 

In economic terms, Singapore's GDP is expected to fall by between -7% and -4% this year. Therefore, the government has responded with a significant increase in public spending, through four economic stimulus packages to support the economy, amounting to about 19% of Singapore's GDP. The intervention aims at supporting families, businesses and workers with measures such as subsidies, moratoria, tax deductions and favorable financing conditions for the most affected sectors (in particular tourism and aviation).  

The evolution of the health emergency in Singapore has shown both strengths and weaknesses of the city-state. Technological infrastructures and high level scientific research have enabled the government to respond effectively to the first cases of coronavirus in the country, revealing a certain scientific reactivity. This has allowed many economic activities to continue despite the pandemic, reducing the impact of the virus on the productive fabric of the country. However, the pandemic also showed some weaknesses of Singapore’s country system. As a commercial and financial hub, its dependence on regional and global interconnections has weighed and will weigh heavily on the government's ability to revive the country. Air and naval traffic has dropped dramatically, and this threatens to create serious problems for Singapore's economy. Moreover, the case of the immigrant workers has revealed one of the few weak points of the city-state: a direct dependence on foreign labor that is fundamental for the effective functioning of a smart-city like Singapore. 

It will be crucial for Singapore to reopen its economic system to international trade as soon as possible, in order to intercept new trends and strengthen the global dimension of the Singaporean economy.

Article edited by Tullio Ambrosone

Behind the origins of the EU-Malaysia tensions

Diverging views on palm oil fuel could prevent further collaboration.

Based on the European External Action Service’s data, the EU is Malaysia's third largest trading partner and accounted in 2014 for 9.9% of Malaysia's total external trade in goods. At the same time, Malaysia ranked as the EU's 23rd largest trading partner, the second largest trade partner in the South East Asia region. 2010 marked the start of the negotiations of the EU-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement; however, negotiations came to a halt, due to differing views on palm oil, and on how to reconcile economic interests with environmental imperatives.

The crux of the conflict between the EU and Indonesia lies in the EU's decision to phase out palm oil-based biofuel as an energy source. The Renewable Energy Directive (RED) I of 2009 encouraged and facilitated Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia to export palm oil to the EU. However, in recent years Europe has operated a radical change in discourse concerning palm oil, which is today widely considered dangerous for environmental protection.

Indeed, the main reproach made to the palm oil industry is the fact that it is a land-intensive production. The main consequences of this model are massive deforestation, soil degradation and a worrying increase of air pollution, namely through greenhouse gas emissions.

Pressure from European consumers finally convinced the EU Parliament to progressively ban the use of palm oil by 2030, and to revise the Directive (RED II) in 2018 to define benchmarks for biofuels. This change complicated relations between the EU and Malaysia. In fact, Malaysia and Indonesia (the two countries together produce more than 85% of the world’s palm oil) considered this move as a protectionist measure and asked support to other ASEAN countries to bring the case in front of the World Trade Organisation. After month of negotiations with the Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson, Malaysia stepped back from its initial intentions, but until the case has been resolved, it will keep penalising EU products in retaliation, and slow down any discussion regarding the FTA.

Not only does palm oil contribute around 5 per cent of Malaysia’s annual GDP, but also provides millions of people with stable job and wages. For this reason, it is also a matter of political and social concern.

The Malaysian government wants to persuade the EU that Malaysian palm oil was much greener than its critics claim, and to push the Union to revise its decisions by 2021. Until then, controversy between economic priorities and environmental commitments will keep hindering progress toward negotiations for an FTA.

 

Article edited by Valentina Beomonte Zobel.

The new China-Laos railway

The new infrastructure will be completed by the end of 2021, and it will bring substantial changes to trade in South-East Asia.

The project accords perfectly to the Laotian Government’s strategy to turn Laos from a landlocked country into a land-linked hub. The rail is the longest one outside China in Asia, linking China to Thailand through Laos: a 414-km railway, that will run from Boten (border gate between northern Laos and the Chinese province of Yunnan), to Vientiane (Laos’ capital, at the border with Thailand). Works began at the end of 2016, but unavoidable delays occurred due to the Covid-19 emergency. Despite this, operations re-started after only 23 days, allowing the project to stay on track as initially scheduled.

Economic and geopolitical advantages of the new railway will be remarkable for both China and South-East Asia. For the first time ever Yunnan, already a crucial region for connecting China and ASEAN, will be linked directly to Thailand by land. The railway will allow Chinese products to reach not only Laos and Thailand’s markets, but also those of Malaysia and Singapore. This will be possible without relying on costly air or naval transport anymore. A logistic operation that has no precedents for China, and that will allow the country to expand more than ever in the region. The project is part of the China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but it will not be devoted only to the exchange of goods and people. On the contrary, it will also be an important health support for developing countries. More cooperation in the health sector, possible thanks to the China’s Health and Silk Road project, will be offered through substantial aid to those ASEAN countries more hit by the pandemic and by the lack of adequate healthcare facilities.

According to the World Bank, the new railway could dramatically contribute to the development of the Laos economy, if followed by meaningful reforms. The elections of new leaders and of a new politburo, scheduled for early next year at the Party National Congress of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, are likely to bring the right momentum to introduce those reforms.

From new infrastructures comes a new kind of traffic, not only in goods and people but also for mere transit. Laos industries should not waste this moment: if they will be able to seize it, they will create a new economic corridor under a high-quality logistic planning. In fact, another report from the World Bank assigns Laos a good score in the section “Ease of trade across borders”. With the right strategic approach by public and private sector, several experts believe that the new railway will represent an important incentive to diversify Laos economy, still dependent from a limited number of commercial sectors.

 

 

Article edited by Valentina Beomonte Zobel.

Global Economic Recovery – New Goals & New Drivers

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

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

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

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

 

Women’s conditions in ASEAN during Covid-19

The sanitary emergency poses new challenges to gender equality

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

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

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

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

Article edited by Elena Colonna.

EU and ASEAN: so far yet so close

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

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

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

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

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

 

Article edited by Andrea Dugo.

E-commerce: a driving force for the ASEAN economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Articole edited by Gabriel Zurlo.

EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement: Benefits and opportunities

The FTA has finally been ratified by the EU and Vietnam. What are the implications for Italy?

The European Council approved on March 30th the Free Trade and Investment Agreement (FTA) between the EU and Vietnam. Today, also the Vietnamese National Assembly ratified the agreement, finalizing the procedure. This is the most ambitious trade agreement the EU ever set up with a developing country, offering significant advantages for European and Italian businesses in South-East Asia. After Singapore in November 2019, the EU-Vietnam FTA is the second agreement between the EU and an ASEAN country.

According to the EU Commission, exports from the EU to Vietnam could increase by 29% in 2035, with an estimated value of more than 8 billion euros. As a consequence, the agreement is expected to boost the creation of more than 110.000 jobs in the EU. These significant numbers will be achieved thanks to an initial 65% reduction in Vietnamese tariffs on EU products, that will be followed by an almost complete removal in 10 years from now. Other relevant points for the EU in the agreement are: the reduction of non-tariff barriers, by adopting European and international norms; an unprecedent access for European industries to the Vietnamese public procurement and services market; the ratification of international norms in regard to labour rights and environmental sustainability.

With regards to Italy, the agreement could prove to be extremely beneficial. Data provided by ISTAT and Confindustria reveal that until now Italy has a trade deficit with Vietnam: in 2018, the country imported goods for 2,5 billion euros, while it exported goods for just 1,3 billion. One of the reasons is definitely the high percentage of Vietnamese tariffs on European products, that creates obstacles also for the 4.400 Italian companies exporting to the Vietnamese market (mainly SMEs). By eliminating trade barriers and developing commercial ties with Vietnam, the agreement could bring significant benefits to some crucial sectors of the Italian market, namely the mechanical, automotive, textile, pharmaceutical and agri-food sectors.

Denomination of origin and geographical indication, which is crucial for Italian export, are also included in the agreement. 169 European Geographical Indications are protected, and among these 38 are Italian. The list includes Modena Balsamic Vinegar, Asiago and Gorgonzola cheese, Grana Padano, Bresaola della Valtellina, Campanian Mozzarella di Bufala, Prosciutto di Parma and San Daniele, Prosecco, Franciacorta, and others. The list is subject to continuing revision and potential extension.

Those listed above are just some of the potential benefits for Italy, the EU and Vietnam, that prove the importance of international trade. The FTA brings important benefits and offers interesting opportunities at a time when trade is suffering the dramatic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis. The hope is that this agreement will represent a useful precedent for other negotiations between the EU and South-East Asian countries.

 

Article edited by Valentina Beomonte Zobel.

ASEAN’s collaborative response to COVID-19

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Article edited by Elena Colonna

The impact of Covid-19 on democracy in ASEAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Article edited by Gabriel Zurlo Sconosciuto.

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