Asean Economic Community flags on the blue sky background. illustration: iStock
The ASEAN region boasts a young population, burgeoning middle class, and growing economic clout. Photo: iStock

At the ASEAN Summit in Singapore, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha unveiled sustainable development as the theme for Thailand’s year in the revolving chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. While some say this focus sidesteps major issues facing ASEAN in 2019, we believe it is a bold and urgently needed move by Thailand. Sustainable development sits at the crux of increasingly consequential issues where ASEAN countries are likely to find common ground.

Heading into 2019, the region faces increased external pressures from major geopolitical actors and, internally, must make good on government commitments to maintain, if not accelerate, the economic gains of the last decade. Without sustainable regional development cooperation, the benefits of Southeast Asia’s continued economic growth will be hard pressed to sustain past the next decade.

Over the past year, regional development cooperation in Southeast Asia has taken on more geopolitical significance as major powers pivot their attention to the 10 member states. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has become a key driver of new infrastructure financing in the region. At the recent East Asia Summit, US Vice-President Mike Pence announced a similar plan to support regional infrastructure development in Southeast Asia thanks to a new US development finance institution.

Japan recently hosted a summit with the five Lower Mekong countries to discuss new plans to support regional development with Japanese financing. India and the European Union have also been rolling out new plans for investing in connectivity with the region.

In Southeast Asia, this is generally welcome news, but it potentially comes at a price: The region is once again becoming a theater for exerting geopolitical might.

While these regional development schemes have some major risks, they also represent important opportunities for developing countries in Asia after decades of declining foreign financing for connectivity and infrastructure

As the US-China relationship has deteriorated, ASEAN member states are feeling the effects of the trade war, and growing competition for influence. However, while these regional development schemes have some major risks, they also represent important opportunities for developing countries in Asia after decades of declining foreign financing for connectivity and infrastructure.

To that end, a key priority for ASEAN and its development partners is to ensure that this new influx of financing meets the development needs of the people of Southeast Asia and is not distorted by global power struggles. When government decisions on whether to accept development financing are tied up in a web of geopolitical considerations, it is often difficult for a small or medium-sized country to decline or push for better terms.

Southeast Asian leaders are raising legitimate concerns about unsustainable debt levels, social and environmental damage from loosely managed infrastructure, and the potential harm to local businesses from deeper economic integration with, for example, the Chinese economy.

In Southeast Asia, the most strategic approach for maintaining geopolitical balance, and sensible development financing, is by supporting governments in the region to shape the terms of engagement. In our view, ASEAN is the only credible option for enabling countries in this region to collectively set the direction for regional development cooperation and protects against the risk of being caught up in a brewing geopolitical storm.

ASEAN has been remarkably successful in helping the (mostly small and medium-sized) countries in the region shape their own political, security, and economic environments. Through the East Asia Summit, various ASEAN+1 meetings, and other dialogue platforms, ASEAN has expanded the influence of countries in this region collectively to shape the terms of engagement for major powers seeking to help – and influence – countries in this region. ASEAN’s trade agreements have opened markets well beyond what most individual countries would have been able to achieve on their own.

Furthermore, Southeast Asia is more and more a development success story, with rapidly developing capacity to solve its own technical and financing challenges. In the 50 years since ASEAN was founded, per-capita incomes have expanded nearly 33 times in the region thanks to positive domestic and economic reforms.

According to the ASEAN Secretariat, the poverty rate has fallen from nearly half (47%) to only 14% in just the last 25 years. Social progress has also been astounding, with the literacy rate among women increasing from 67% to 93%, and life expectancy up by 15 years (to 70.9), over the past 50 years.

Thailand’s intention to build a new ASEAN Center to improve sustainable, regional development cooperation is welcome news. It will serve as a catalyst for regional collective action on development cooperation.

This is an opportunity for ASEAN member states jointly to develop an “ASEAN approach”  that reflects the values, interests, capacities, and experiences of the region – and to set on their own terms, thus sending a signal to major powers to respect the new framework for future development financing.

Increasingly, Southeast Asia’s innovations – particularly in new technologies and improved access to digital information and communications – and its youth dividend has the potential to drive rapid progress in solving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and we believe ASEAN can play a catalytic role.

Southeast Asia today is home to cutting-edge innovations in science and technology, yet there are important challenges that require regional cooperation. From piloting data-enabled service delivery to pioneering new channels of inclusive financing, innovators in the region are building the tools that will empower millions to rise out of poverty.

If ASEAN can effectively shape the influx of development financing, then we will see the emergence of a region that is increasingly confident in setting its own direction and moving rapidly toward community-building that is people-centered and leaves no one behind. ASEAN has proved in the past that by coming together, its member states are able to overcome and leapfrog solutions to the region’s toughest challenges.

It can likewise shape an ASEAN-led framework for development and financing around which major powers can rally. In a global arena of rapidly shifting geopolitics, a steady ASEAN-led approach for regional development cooperation would be a win-win for the people – and economic future – of Southeast Asia.

Thomas Parks is country representative for Thailand with The Asia Foundation. Deepali Khanna is managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation's Asia Regional Office.