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The Importance of Diplomacy

By Grace Bautista


ASEAN-Philippines Director-General Daniel Espiritu shares the significant achievements of the notable
intergovernmental organization.

Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Daniel R. Espiritu, ASEAN-Philippines Director-General,

shares the significant achievements of the notable intergovernmental organization.

Established on August 8, 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was created to foster cooperation among the countries within the region in various sectors of the economy and to promote regional peace and stability. The Philippines was one of the five founding members, along with Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.

Fifty-five years later, the association with 10 member states continues to provide a peaceful platform for discussion of regional issues and opportunities for mutual growth and development among nations.

1. Did the goals of ASEAN for the coming years change because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Not really. The goals of ASEAN remain the same, but in the last two years, ASEAN has focused more on pandemic recovery, which happened to be imperative while still giving attention to other priorities such as regional peace and cooperation, economic growth, relationship with external partners, and maritime cooperation, among others.

Pandemic recovery efforts are harmonized among ASEAN member states through the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF), and the pooling of resources such as funds and vaccines is conducted through the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund (CARF).

Economic initiatives, policies, and plans are taken into consideration in the postpandemic recovery efforts, such as in the mapping and planning of people-to-people interactions through travel and tourism corridors to spur tourism and encourage business missions.

2. What is ASEAN’s strategy for economic recovery after the pandemic?

As the region continues to grapple with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, ASEAN maintains its

belief that the economy and people’s livelihood should continue. Trade and investment flows, and the movement of people, goods and delivery of services, in an everexpanding capacity, must continue so that we can bounce back and commence our economic recovery.

The pandemic has revealed the vulnerabilities of the region’s economy, especially in terms of our supply chain, but the same gaps have also identified for us the rooms for improvement. In fact, it has also helped form new areas for further economic cooperation between ASEAN and its external partners.

ASEAN aims to move into economic recovery and supply chain resilience by continuing to aim for faster digital adoption; upgrading technologies; and enhanced human capital and skills transformation to cope with more high-tech machines. The implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is expected to facilitate this recovery as it is intended to make trade faster and cheaper hence supporting higher growth of value chains. However, ASEAN is also mindful that uneven recovery in various sectors, if left unaddressed, may aggravate the growing inequality in terms of income and access to digital technology for Southeast Asia. As such, ASEAN’s focus of interventions is targeted on segments of society that are most vulnerable to the pandemic such as women, youth, micro, small and medium scale enterprises (MSMEs), and tourism players.

3 ASEAN declared 2022 as the year of ASEAN Youth. What is ASEAN doing to help the youth in filling the gap in skills development since the education system has been affected by the pandemic?

The education of 152 million children across the region was disrupted due to COVID-19 pandemic-induced school closures. In observance of social distancing rules, ASEAN leaders and experts responded quickly by deploying distance learning initiatives, e-learning platforms, virtual classrooms and open educational resources, as well as conducting webinar series. Recognizing the digital divide caused by the pandemic, ASEAN education ministers adopted a statement in October 2020 calling for digital transformation of education systems throughout the region. They reaffirmed ASEAN’s commitment to ensure that education in the region is equitable, inclusive, and fit for the future by fostering digital literacy and developing transferable skills among all children and young people.

4 ASEAN’s handling of the West Philippine Sea dispute has been criticized by some as ineffective. What are your thoughts regarding this?

ASEAN occupies a critical position and plays a central, strategic role in the region, especially in the maintenance of regional peace, security, and stability. There are many channels where the issue on the West Philippine Sea is being tackled, including through bilateral and multilateral mechanisms. On a regional level, ASEAN continues to provide a forum for discussion. Beyond dialogues, ASEAN has also launched many practical maritime cooperation initiatives among its members and external partners. While not all ASEAN member states (AMS) are claimant states, the AMS have recognized and reaffirmed, through the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea, their resolve to settle the issue by peaceful means without resorting to force. Through the 2002.

Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, they highlighted the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation. AMS have also committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Philippines also continues to reiterate the assertion of the 2016 Award on the South China Sea Arbitration as a cornerstone of international law. The arbitral award provides legal clarity to all, singles out no one but rather justly benefits the community of lawabiding nations. Many partners have expressed support for the 2016 arbitral award and we are confident that many countries will do so. Importantly, ASEAN provides a venue for a peaceful settlement on this dispute. Aside from ASEAN, we are also using other means to come up with a resolution. What is important is that tensions are managed and that there are no shooting wars between claimants.

5 What are the notable accomplishments of ASEAN for the past years? How did the organization achieve these despite the COVID-19 pandemic?

For almost 55 years, ASEAN has continued to maintain regional peace and stability while promoting economic progress in the region. The creation of the ASEAN Community Pillars in 2015 further strengthened regional interaction and cooperation. One of the more recent achievements of the ASEAN Political Security Community is the progress in the negotiation for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, specifically the approval of the draft preambular portion of the COC last year during the Philippines’ Country Coordinatorship of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations.

The finalization of the world’s largest trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which was an ASEAN-led initiative, was probably the single most impactful achievement of the ASEAN Economic Community since its inception. Meanwhile, the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community continuously works towards the building and recognition of an ASEAN identity while sustaining post-pandemic recovery efforts through the ACRF. These notable achievements of each Community Pillar all happened during the pandemic. Needless to say, if there’s a will, there’s a way. Although the pandemic has caused major disruptions, ASEAN has swiftly adapted in the way we deal with issues and challenges.

6 What can we expect from the ASEAN-US Special Summit?

At the ASEAN-US Special Summit conducted last May 12-13 in Washington D.C., President Joseph Biden, Jr. declared that we were not only celebrating 45 years of partnership but ushering in a new era in ASEAN-US relations, demonstrating the United States’ (US) strong commitment as a partner in the ASEAN region. President Joe Biden announced over US$150 million to be allotted for cooperation activities that will revitalize relations in line with the Joint Vision Statement, the special summit’s outcome document. With commitment from the US, we will see an enhancement of cooperation in sustainable and inclusive development, promoting health security, enhancing people-to-people exchange, addressing climate change, and expanding maritime cooperation. Another important benefit arising from the special summit is the expansion of US support for access to education. The US will double the size of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) program within three years to benefit 900 scholars annually. US support and investment on clean energy infrastructure and projects are expected to help strengthen the region’s power system and energy trade, and accelerate the deployment of clean energy technologies to help ASEAN advance its net zero carbon emission target.

7 Recently, scientists expressed alarm over an announcement that we only have a few years left to act to reverse the effects of climate change. Can you share ASEAN’s efforts in this regard?

Climate change and its attendant effects remain one of the most pressing issues facing the region and the entire world. ASEAN has done much in terms of cooperative efforts to address climate change in the region, as noted in the ASEAN Joint Statement on Climate Change during the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP 26) last November 2021. In it, ASEAN noted its numerous programs on climate change.

For instance, ASEAN has strengtIn addition, we have promoted sustainable management of forests and the conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries. We have also worked to enhance biodiversity conservation, protection, and restoration of various terrestrial, coastal, and marine ecosystems. Moreover, last year saw the launching of the ASEAN Green Initiative by the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity, a project that will plant at least 10 million native trees across the 10 AMS in a span of 10 years.hened its capability to prevent, mitigate, and manage climate-related disasters through its existing mechanisms under the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER), the “One ASEAN One Response” Declaration, and the ASEAN Declaration on Strengthening Adaptation to Drought.

ASEAN has also surpassed its aspiration target in terms of energy efficiency by achieving a reduction of 21 percent in energy intensity and reaching a 13.9 percent renewable energy share in our region’s total primary energy supply in 2018. We also developed the new ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation (APAEC) 2016-2025.

8 Can you share some of the important things discussed during the recent ASEAN-New Zealand dialogue? How do these impact the Philippines?

During the dialogue last April 7, the Philippines recommended that ASEAN and New Zealand further enhance cybersecurity measures by discussing developments in mitigating cyber threats to minimize damage in the private and public sectors. Both ASEAN and New Zealand looked forward to the conclusion of the upgrade negotiations of the ASEANAustralia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA) with a view to support the region’s economic recovery. In our case, the Philippines wishes to focus on MSMEs as these are the nimblest in adapting to the challenges of the pandemic, especially in the fields of e-commerce and digital economy.

Also, we encouraged New Zealand to cooperate with ASEAN through the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), headquartered in the Philippines, in promoting nature-based solutions in the areas of pandemic response, recovery, including zoonoses, and prevention.

Lastly, the Philippines encouraged New Zealand to support mutually-beneficial TVET in ASEAN and New Zealand to support human resource development, enhance productivity by promoting life-long learning and digital education, and to contribute to the sustainable socio-economic development of the region and to better prepare our peoples for the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

9 What can we expect from ASEAN in the coming years?

ASEAN, as the world’s fifth largest economy, will continue to be a force in the Asia-Pacific region. With its economies that remained resilient amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and which have adapted through digitalization of commerce, the future is looking bright for ASEAN. ASEAN has commenced working on the ASEAN Community Post-2025 Vision, which will be the successor document to the ASEAN Community Blueprints 2025 and will guide the thrust of the advocacies and policies of ASEAN after 2025.

10 What is your message to the Filipino people?

The Philippines, and us as its citizens, are members of ASEAN. Everything in ASEAN and in the region affects us so it is better if we are onboard and actively participate in their processes. It starts by understanding what ASEAN is and what is happening inside the region and identify opportunities that are there especially in different cooperatives. Unfortunately, many are not aware of what ASEAN does and what is happening with our neighbors. Little by little, our neighboring countries have overtaken us because they are more aware of the opportunities within ASEAN. So it’s important that we are alert and nimble so that we can also partake of whatever benefits there might be within the regional organization.

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