H.E. Rooge Thammongkol
Ambassador of Thailand
When I flew to Kuwait in September 2020, it was quite a difficult time, during which quarantine, social distancing, and mask-wearing were enforced. A year later, with vaccination and relaxed health policies, things started to turn to normalcy.
However, this year we never expected a war between Russia and Ukraine and its fallout has drastically changed the geopolitical and economic landscapes. Reality bites. We have to endure another year of pain, not prosperity. From the US to Europe, Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Africa, we are all facing effects from the war on food and energy security, as well as fertilizer and commodities prices, and logistics and supply chain disruptions.
Given the decoupling process in globalization, government officials, diplomats and scholars around the globe have discussed with each other and have reached similar conclusions about the world situation, namely that military intervention has led to fatigue, knock-on effects toward economic recession is real, multi-polar powers and security arrangements do pop up, and Asia or the Indo-Pacific in the larger scale has grown in its importance.
Against the backdrop of what is going on in Europe, attention is now turning to Asia, where most countries enjoy growth, peace and sustainable prosperity. Asia is now at the center, accounting for nearly 35 percent of world trade and is the fastest growing region of the world with 59 percent of world population.
The region continues to enjoy growth characterized by diversity and inclusiveness with Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) upholding unity and centrality as its core. ASEAN, which groups 10 countries of Southeast Asia, since its inception in 1964, has grown into a success story as one single community.
Nonetheless, challenges remain, mostly security issues, such as the South China Sea, Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, Social Inequality, and Natural Disasters. ASEAN centrality is becoming more pivotal for advancing cooperation with dialogue partners within and outside the region.
Last year, ASEAN and China, Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, altogether accounting for 30 percent of the global GDP, signed the RCEP Agreement, making it the world’s largest trading bloc. Also there are many regional trade blocs in this region, such as AEC, CPTPP, Quad, APEC (hosted by Thailand at the end of this year) to name a few, and most recently IPEF or the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, proposed by the US at the mid of this year.
It is interesting to observe that in Asia, there is no such security architecture like NATO. Most of the regional blocs and cooperation in Asia are economic/trade-oriented.
Security issues within the region have been long discussed within ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) with dialogue partners, a forum in which preventive diplomacy and confidence-building measures are practiced for more than 25 years, with a hope that rapport, consultation, established line of communication, Asian culture of perseverance, endurance, nonviolent gesture, resilience, and the use of diplomacy as the firstline of defense will pave way towards more secure and peaceful environment.
Also, it is important to note that, despite efforts in maintaining peace and order in the region in the past years, present regional conflicts remain cause for concern,
and can prompt escalation, especially during situations that involve the influence of superpowers, competitions and situations where cold war mentality remains prevalent.
The question is how ASEAN and other major countries in the region respond to this challenge. “Do we side with the US, or with China ? ” Or should we maintain our stance as a nonaligned, pragmatist balancer of power? Adding to the regional major power-calculation, India is now becoming a very important regional player too.
In recent years, there are constant calls for ASEAN to take a proactive role in the region. ASEAN is well positioned and now better connected than before —
dialogue partners and Indo-Pacific countries will help prevent conflicts from escalation and thus promote decentralized globalization.
Another pressing concern is a global economic recession due to rising prices for food and energy. As few of ASEAN members are in the top 20 of the world’s biggest food exporters, they do not have problems with food security. But energy is another story, because each member has different levels of energy sources and supplies. Most countries still rely on oil imports. If they are not able to grapple with higher oil prices effectively, it will certainly contribute to inflation rate, cost of living and eventual
slowing of economic growth.
The rise of oil prices is something we must learn to live with. Some members have already started a few years back with the use of gasohol (a mixture of unleaded
gasoline and ethanol made from palm oil and biomass) to reduce oil imports. The introduction of renewable energy from wind, sun, heat, biomass and hydrogen have been carried out, but so far have yielded only modest results.
A country like Thailand is now concentrating on the production of electric cars for domestic consumption and exports. Looking ahead, ASEAN and others in the Indo–Pacific are
projecting slow economic growth of 2–4 percent on average. Global warming and greenhouse effects have made themselves known.
ASEAN will continue to promote further green agenda and industries related to Bio-Circular energies and make sure that its action plan for sustainable development goals is consistent with UN SDG 2030. In conclusion, geographically and politically speaking, ASEAN is positioned in the middle, sandwiched by major powers aside and afar. ASEAN community has developed quickly in recent years and will continue to do so.
ASEAN is now tasked with the most important work, which is to keep the region free from nuclear weapons, and create a stable, safe and sound environment, conducive for trade and investment. Another role is ASEAN centrality, with close cooperation with all major powers in promoting peace and security in the Indo-Pacific. However, this is easier said than done, but it is incumbent upon ASEAN to use its leverage and experiences to deal with all challenges.
ASEAN Summits that have occurred with all major powers this year are a testimony for its admirable efforts for peace and prosperity. I am encouraged by the ASEAN success story and hope that they will contribute more for the international community in the years to come.
All rights reserved for The Times Kuwait