Asean 2050: Toward a new ambition

The writer encourages a rethink of the way the regional alliance works.

Simone Galimberti

Simone Galimberti

The Jakarta Post


People pose with the newly set up logo of ASEAN, as Indonesia officially assumes the group's chairmanship following a ceremony in Jakarta on Jan. 29. (AFP/Goh Chai Hin)

March 27, 2023

JAKARTA – You might have thought that Myanmar or the official representatives of the generals in power had been shunned from ASEAN. But it is not really the case.

Preventing them from attending the annual ASEAN Summit is still considered the symbolic pinnacle of the bloc’s pressure on Naypyidaw, hoping stronger positions would follow. Instead, the permanent representative of Myanmar to ASEAN was allowed to cochair the 24th ASEAN-China Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta on March 17.

While the meeting did not hit the headlines, as they often don’t with the insulated world of ASEAN affairs, it is still a reminder of a geopolitical impasse occurring in the region.

Still, this technical meeting of bureaucrats symbolically represents what ASEAN is not yet: a community of nations marching together, thanks to shared values, toward a common future.

Common values are certainly not a defining feature of the region nor the necessary vision for it to become one of the most important economic and geopolitical actors. Thinking ahead is essential.

The bloc is actually trying to do this, attempting to define how it will look in the years to come. The problem is, what should be the most exciting initiative being taken by ASEAN, imagining a different but united future, is, again, a discussion mostly held behind closed doors.

Even if some attempts are being made at reaching out to key stakeholders, there is still so much to be done to promote wider discussions about it.

After all, who knows what the High-Level Task Force on the ASEAN Community’s Post-2025 Vision (HLTF-ACV) means and represents? Is it, by chance, the code for a new infective variant instead, or is it the scientific term of a new groundbreaking discovery?

The HLTF-ACV met in Bali on March 19 as part of the official program of the Indonesian chairmanship of ASEAN. It was the seventh time that the task force had met and in the near future more such gatherings will come and go but the status quo will prevail.

Worryingly, this means that fewer and fewer people will be bothered to even know about the final outcomes. This is a problem, even a huge one.

As I have already written in this paper, if ASEAN wants really to become a truly relevant institution in the world, it needs to become relevant and noticed by its own people.

Let’s now do a small exercise in imagination.

How would the region look like in 2050 when most of the world is supposed to have achieved the transition to net-zero?

The latest report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released on March 20 pushes for a decisive “quantum leap” in order for humanity to be saved from climate and biological disasters.

Will ASEAN be able to heed the call in the forms of electrification and reinvention of its economic model?

Will the bloc be able to attract international capital and unprecedented levels of internal accountability and transparency to go forward with the most ambitious economic plan that could transform the region into one of the cleanest and least polluted places in the world?

And why not, then, imagine if that quantum leap could also happen in terms of democracy, human rights and political integration? Would, by 2050, ASEAN member states have fully embraced higher standards of democratic and human rights practices, or would their leaders still cover their heads by claiming that human rights and democracy are western concepts not so compatible with the ASEAN way?

And, by the way, what would such an “ASEAN way” really mean by 2050?

Perhaps a better way would be to promote civic engagement and more direct forms of active citizen participation in decision-making.

Could, instead, the ASEAN way become an international benchmark for regional integration? Could it become a global blueprint that shows how nations, used to banding together meanly to better and more efficiently pursue their self-interests, are instead able to shift gears to achieve common prosperity through real integration?

Perhaps by 2050 ASEAN would have transitioned to become the Southeast Asia Compact of Nations or no more constrained by a regional mindset, an Asian Union of Nations?

Maybe, by that time, there will be a real parliament with elected representatives and a regional court where citizens can find remedies.?

What if the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta could be turned into a real executive body empowered by clear competence enshrined into a new regional integration chart?

By mid-century, ASEAN could embrace a unique model of citizens’ involvement in the best practices of more direct and deliberative democracy. Most importantly, the region could become a global peace actor deserving the Nobel Prize for having stopped a brutal civil war and averted a destructive clash of titans in the South China Sea.

It is just a bold imagination of what ASEAN could become in a few decades from now. Obviously, by sticking to the same traditional playbook, nothing like this would ever happen.

That is why the exercise of thinking up the post-2025 vision should be completely rethought and rebranded as ASEAN 2050: Toward a New Ambition.

Students, even from early grades, should be involved in promoting more daring thinking of the region that puts citizens at the center of its bold plans. Newspapers could regain some relevance by championing such debate while politicians should include the issue in their manifesto even when elections are just a formality.

The problem is that people must start caring about ASEAN and a prerequisite to do so is that they must be able to express a strong sense of disaffection and frustration with the ongoing way of “doing” ASEAN.

Unfortunately, nothing is moving in this direction, and the usual approach is probably going to dominate any strategic thinking about Southeast Asia.

A real change of heart needs to occur, and a true common ambition emerges among the new generations driven by both an individual and collective sense of aspirational leadership. The former is essential because ultimately a better and stronger ASEAN is an issue of self-interest and the youths should get this right.

Yet it is indispensable that they come together and form a real community with a shared identity, and this requires tonnes of mutual trust and effort. This would be a real gigantic quantum leap.

Hopefully a minnow-like Timor-Leste could punch above its weight and really bring a much-needed shock to the regional “order”.


The writer comments on social inclusion, youth development, regional integration, SDGs and human rights in the context of Asia Pacific.

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