The Future of Public Diplomacy in ASEAN+
Abstract: The Future of Public Diplomacy in ASEAN+
Submitted by Regine Stephanie Borja Guevara to MGIMO University
On the occasion of ASEAN Day 2022
ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is primed to hold the keys to inter-regional decision-making. Constantly shaped by geo-politics, the 10 member states and their baskets of resources, for centuries, have been exposed to colonial and trade powers, including their former American and European colonizers, and trading partners in nearby East and South Asia. At present, the regional bloc has 10 dialogue partners with whom it regularly co-hosts high-level exchanges, namely Australia, Canada, China, European Union, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Russian Federation and the United States of America. With the recent signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, ASEAN has started to take bolder steps towards building its own economic powerhouse. Needless to say, while the COVID-19 pandemic has closed majority of the borders, disrupted tourism and halted trade activities, this side of the world has always and will always bring the superpowers to the tables, both hard and soft.
Consequentially, ASEAN public diplomacy can be as volatile as the waters of the Asia Pacific, or arguably Indo Pacific, in these waves of ethno-linguistic diversities and split-struggles for self-determination, among other juxtapositions. Evidently, in its first ten years of existence, ASEAN was very much preoccupied with internal integration, and caution was placed on external relationships, to keep itself from being an arena of Cold War. Currently, it maintains that its dialogue partners are on an equal footing with member states, where joint decisions and actions are made for programmes that are of mutual benefit, and with cost-sharing approaches.
People-to-people exchange is one of the bedrocks of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC), which commits to: “lift the quality of life of its peoples through cooperative activities that are people-oriented, people-centred, environmentally friendly, and geared towards the promotion of sustainable development.” This includes but not limited to forging the business communities closer, as well as think tanks and non-governmental organizations, with important sectors such as youth (15–35 years old, by ASEAN Youth Development Index) coined as “the future of ASEAN’s external relations.” According to the ASEAN Blueprint 2025, the Qualities of the ASCC are: 1) People engagement, 2) Inclusive, 3) Sustainable, 4) Resilient and 5) Dynamic. Needless to say, the pandemic has moved most if not all transactions online, limiting in-person contact and disabling — if not transforming — shared socio-cultural experiences. For obvious reasons, vaccine and health care have been at the forefront of international relations, and what remains to be important aspects of both digital and cultural economies.
This research proposes public diplomacy strategies by which regional dialogue partners are pushed to take forward in a post-COVID world. Before, and after the pandemic, some of the key formats for people-to-people exchange deployed in ASEAN include: 1) social media, 2) political leaders, 3) religious icons, 4) commercial / economies of scale, 5) overseas workers and 6) international students. These are greatly influenced by regional integration in the 2 other pillars of political-security and economics, and the agreed “rules of the game” within ASEAN as a mature regional institution.
As for ASEAN vis-à-vis the Triangle of Russia-USA-China, similar rules apply. The challenge is to compete digitally, and at the same time, as the ASCC suggests, inclusively, to the wide masses, as well sustainably in what always will be disaster-prone areas, and what remains of man-made conflict areas (the very security reasons for why ASEAN was formed by the Founding Fathers).
Traditionally, American aid has banked on “Uncle Ben’s dollar diplomacy” especially in underdeveloped and developing countries. While this image has declined during the Trump administration, with the defunding of USAID projects in the region, and the decline of American ties with the current Philippine President, its only colony in the region (since the decommissioning of 2 military bases), certain socio-cultural formats pervaded. US Embassies have capitalized on social media presence, and they organization of network-based movements, such as the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), which has organically grown since 2013. It is described as: “a public diplomacy program designed to advance regional strategic goals, break down barriers that separate the next generation of leaders in Southeast Asia, and link those emerging leaders to the United States.”
On the other hand, China, as the nearby neighbor, benefits from a deeper historical relationships as early as the Han and Qin dynasties. Unwittingly, confucian values pervade regional discourse, where the Chinese concept of diplomacy “harmony but without uniformity” resonates with the ASEAN value of consensus. Nevertheless, state-led diplomacy may have little to build, but remain to be in constant tension with the prevailing security predicaments in the South China Sea/ West Philippine Sea. Notwithstanding that multiethnic Chinese peoples in Southeast Asia account for more than 80% of overseas Chinese worldwide, whose family businesses have become emblems not only of the Chinese language, food, and holidays, but also the establishment of Chinese towns and many local establishments that afforded public goods of economies of scale. Another layer to this business-oriented relationship is the rise of technical support in social entrepreneurship and youth-led start-ups, as captured in the last ASEAN-China-UNDP Symposium: Enhancing the Roles of Youth in Achieving the SDGs. The meeting also looked at the serious implications of unemployment, and trends related to up-to-date skills and reliable digital infrastructure.
In between these 2 more intimate relationships, it can be said that the ASEAN principle of non-interference has sat well with Russia, another advocate for mutual collaboration. While the Russian Federation became a full-pledged ASEAN dialogue partner in 1996, it has paid more attention to bilateral ties, and a rather symbolic presence in regional affairs. Historically, in the Mekong sub-region, Russia was instrumental in setting-up national film industries, radio and television, and written languages for indigenous communities, where Russian language centers remain operational up to this day. Granted the many medical, technological, and agricultural institutes set-up, a large segment of present-day elite studied in the U.S.S.R. and Russia. Whereas cultural centres and business assemblies do also occur in the rest of the region, Indonesia as the only ASEAN co-member of the G20 Summit, and Singapore being host to the first Russia-ASEAN consultations that continue to support the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Centre. Other regional tracks exist around cybersecurity, food security, and peace and security — in fact, there exists a separate track of collaboration between the defense ministers of Russia and ASEAN member states. In order to facilitate deeper exchange on the cultural front, the ASEAN Center was launched at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), the institutionalization of a Network of ASEAN-Russia Think Tanks (NARTT) and also the organizing of annual ASEAN youth summits. Since 2012, progress has been observed since the “turn east” policy, and in 2015, for the first time, Russia was host to senior regional leaders at the ASEAN-Russia Summit in Sochi, then soon after, in 2016, the Permanent Mission of Russia to ASEAN was established. Furthermore, the promise of integration between China’s One Belt, One Road initiative and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union do have future implications on the regional bloc.
At the brink of the 21st Century, the United Nations has turned global agenda into a discussion of sustainable development, within the frameworks of sustaining peace, urbanization, disaster-resilience, and climate action, among others. What this means for a dynamic like ASEAN + at a time that demands reversing the adverse effects of the virus is peculiarly interesting. On one hand, when COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, internet integration broke into governance and public diplomacy strategies. For the most part especially in politically-difficult contexts, this continues to lead to the breaking down of institutional barriers, and even a disruption of traditional boundaries of diplomacy. In addition, the story of vaccine diplomacy as soft power has just begun. ASEAN announced in March 2021 the introduction of a digital COVID-19 vaccine certificate as a means of reviving the tourism sector. Compared to its American and Chinese counterparts, Russia–ASEAN agenda is uniquely evolving at its own pace, with wider entry points in a post-COVID world. For one, it benefits from the lack of age-long suspicions targeted at Russia brought about by the West after the Cold War. At the same time, identity discourse of Russia as being in between 2 regions, and Russians as Eurasians, warrants a discussion on how they perceive their Asian origins and counterparts, in a society that is said to still predominantly identify with European culture. But what an ASEAN-Russian relationship looks like without China as an add-on, or rather what it will look like in between the China and USA trade wars, is an entire exploration.
An un-disturbing but necessary observer and a modest but important participant? Despite its growing economic strength, ASEAN remains entangled within the larger frame of globalization and the powers that be. The 21st Century’s promises of a “New Asia” will always have to collide at the juncture of most if not all kinds of cultural, religious, political, economic discourses, towards the South-East.
Listing of Related Literature Russia and ASEAN can achieve a great deal together Segei LAVROV https://asean.mgimo.ru/images/partn/Lavrov_Russia-and-ASEAN_en.pdf Russia in Indochina: Back to the Future? Vladimir MAZYRIN https://asean.mgimo.ru/images/partn/Mazyrin_Russia-in-Indochina_en.pdf Local Cultures and the New Asia: The State, Culture and Capitalism in Southeast Asia https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/local-cultures-and-the-new-asia/EF117B4491FD4E4456FF8E04624B3541 ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint 2025 https://asean.org/storage/2016/01/ASCC-Blueprint-2025.pdf ASEAN’s Strategy Towards Its Dialogue Partners and ASEAN Plus Three Process, by S. Pushpanathan https://asean.org/?static_post=asean-s-strategy-towards-its-dialogue-partners-and-asean-plus-three-process-by-s-pushpanathan Public Diplomacy and Its Functions in the Regional Governance of China and Southeast Asia Zhao Yonglun, Zhang Yinsong Public Administration College, YunnanUniversityofFinance and Economic Center for public diplomacy Southern California. U.S. Ambassadors on Public Diplomacy in ASEAN https://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/story/cpd-event-asean-matters-southern-california Olga Krasnyak Review — Russia’s Public Diplomacy: Evolution and Practice https://www.e-ir.info/pdf/80390