The EU-ASEAN digital connectivity partnership in a post-pandemic world

#CriticalThinking

Asia

Picture of Eduardo José A. de Vega
Eduardo José A. de Vega

Philippine Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Union

Dialogue relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union date back to July 1977. These strong relations were highlighted by an ASEAN-EU Commemorative Summit in Manila in 2017 during the 40th anniversary of the establishment of relations between the two blocs and numerous ministerial meetings through the years. The EU is the third largest trading partner of ASEAN, with total trade between the regional groups reaching US$226.68bn in 2020. In addition, the EU is the second largest source of foreign direct investments to ASEAN, with a value of $10.1bn in 2020. In terms of project and programme funding from ASEAN’s external partners, the EU ranks second with $247.45mn.

These robust economic relations between ASEAN and the EU were put to the test when the COVID-19 pandemic became the global scourge that it was. Overnight, millions of people in both regions had to exclusively rely on their sometimes-unstable internet connections to work, study, shop and be entertained as lockdowns prevented them from going about their daily lives. These factors especially burdened micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), which total 98% of all businesses in ASEAN and together make up the main economic driver of the member states.

In the midst of this crisis, the opportunity arose for governments to fast-track investments in digital infrastructure.

The MPAC seeks to support the adoption of technology by MSMEs, support financial access through digital technologies, improve open data use and support enhanced data management

The EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific issued last year recognises the economic and political importance of the Indo-Pacific region. Among its priority areas, the strategy seeks to “strengthen connections between Europe and the Indo-Pacific and help partner countries address the digital divide and further integrate into the global digital ecosystem”, as well as “support partners to improve connectivity on the ground”.

In 2019, the first edition of the Europa Connectivity Forum had in fact been dedicated to EU-Asia connectivity, with a partnership agreement on sustainable connectivity between the EU and Japan signed in Brussels.

The Global Gateway initiative of Team Europe, which was launched in December 2021, seeks to invest up to €300bn until 2027. This can certainly impact investments in the digital sector. Projects will include addressing the digital divide, climate resilience, clean energy, smart transport networks and digital education.

The EU’s Digital Compass, which seeks to make Europe the most connected continent by 2030, can serve as a valuable resource for ASEAN policymakers to determine points of convergence with its own Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025. The MPAC seeks to support the adoption of technology by MSMEs, support financial access through digital technologies, improve open data use and support enhanced data management in ASEAN member states.

This high level of cooperation has led to the absence of armed conflicts among its member states in the group’s 54 years of existence

To emphasise the importance of this topic, the ASEAN-EU Statement on Connectivity was adopted during the 23rd ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting on 1 December 2020. The statement recognises the role of digital connectivity in the “areas of digital innovation, digital infrastructure and logistics, digitalisation of manufacturing and services, ICT security, the adoption of technology by MSMEs, and increasing access to digital services, ensuring the protection of personal and consumers’ data and privacy.” The statement also envisions continuing the work of the ASEAN-EU Dialogue on the ASEAN Digital Index as a “policy tool to measure the progress and impact of digitalisation on society and the economy”.

Admittedly, unlike in the EU, wherein all member states are required to be democracies, ASEAN member states have different governance models. However, this has not stopped ASEAN from cooperating on political, security, economic and socio-cultural pillars. Most importantly, this high level of cooperation has led to the absence of armed conflicts among its member states in the group’s 54 years of existence.

Surprisingly, although the EU espouses its values which centre on human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and human rights, a number of free-trade agreement negotiations with certain ASEAN member states were put on hold even if these member states are fully functioning democracies. In the case of the Philippines, the country has just held its national elections to select its next leaders in the executive, legislative and local government positions. When investing in digital connectivity projects in ASEAN, it is hoped that the EU becomes more inclusive in choosing investment destinations, especially now as ASEAN member states recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Philippines will work with the EU under the theme, ‘2022: Building the Future Better’, which includes digital technology and cyber-security among its priority areas

The biggest challenges that will require the most resources are the continued training of all citizens to be literate in navigating this digital landscape; the rollout of the physical infrastructure to make 5G internet accessible and affordable; and the means to detect and counter misinformation, disinformation, as well as other data privacy and cyber-security threats.

As the ASEAN coordinator for ASEAN-EU Dialogue Relations until 2024, the Philippines will work with the EU under the theme, ‘2022: Building the Future Better’, which includes digital technology and cyber-security among its priority areas. Moving forward, the new ASEAN-EU Plan of Action – covering the years 2023 to 2027 and currently being negotiated among ASEAN member states – includes connectivity cooperation. In addition, among the possible outcomes of the ASEAN-EU Commemorative Summit in December 2022 would be discussions on connectivity and advancing the ASEAN-EU Ministerial Statement on Connectivity, which should complement the EU’s Global Gateway initiative.

The ASEAN member states look forward to a productive partnership with the EU in the coming years to ensure that all member states from both regional blocs recover fully and even thrive in a post-pandemic world.

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