Strengthening ASEAN's role in the G20
Southeast Asia's voice is not being used effectively in the G20
14 February 2014
By: Awidya Santikajaya
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei Darussalam (center) representing ASEAN at the G20 Leaders' Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Since its establishment as an international forum in 2008, the Group of Twenty (G20) nations has often been criticized for lacking legitimacy and not being sufficiently representative. Although the G20 uses regional representation as one basis for selecting its members, some regions feel underrepresented.

While other regional bodies, such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Arab League and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), are rarely invited to attend the G20 summit, Southeast Asia has at least three representatives: Indonesia as a G20 member; the rotating chair of ASEAN; and the ASEAN secretary general as a frequent guest. In addition, on behalf of the Global Governance Group (3G), Singapore attended the last two summits and is invited to this year Australia’s presidency.

The G20 has good reason to invite ASEAN. During the global financial crisis, Southeast Asia had some of the world’s best performing economies. ASEAN as a region is expected to grow around 5.2 percent this year, according to the Asian Development Bank. With its high economic growth, low inflation and high foreign exchange reserves, Southeast Asia is an engine for the global recovery.

Learning from the severe Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, ASEAN nations also have adopted measures to manage macroeconomic instability in the region. One example is the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI), a multilateral currency swap arrangement involving ASEAN plus China, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong. There is also the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO) and the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA), two think tanks that monitor the region’s economy to detect potential shocks.

Need to do more

In other words, Southeast Asia deserves its seats at the G20 table. However, Southeast Asian nations need to do more as a group to affirm their role in global economic management.

First, while the revolving chairs of ASEAN claim their participation in the G20 is on behalf of ASEAN, it remains unclear what ASEAN’s interests are in the G20. The revolving chairs also tend to articulate their own national interest rather the interests of ASEAN. During the 2012 G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, for instance, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen encouraged oil producing countries to help ease high oil prices that hampered the economies of net oil importing countries, such as Cambodia. A year later, high oil prices were not raised as an issue at the St Petersburg summit by Brunei, which took over the ASEAN chair from Cambodia. Brunei, of course, is a wealthy oil exporter and has no interest in lower oil prices.

Second, ASEAN lacks a formal structural arrangement that ensures coordination and continuity for its agenda in the G20. The ASEAN G20 contacts, consisting of Indonesia, the revolving ASEAN chair and the ASEAN secretary general, have not been effective so far. Coordination among them before and during the summit is more informal, rather than binding and strategic. The chair of ASEAN usually reports on the G20 Summit during the ASEAN Summit, but the briefing does not aim to get feedback from ASEAN members or to formulate new positions for the G20. Furthermore, in the last two summits, Singapore, which attended as the spokesperson of the Global Governance Group, tended to see itself as an independent actor and not as a member of ASEAN.

Confusion on compliance

Third, ASEAN does not have a mechanism to reinforce G20 policies and harmonize them with ASEAN’s programs. During the 2010 G20 Toronto Summit, an ASEAN concept paper raised the need for closer cooperation between the G20 and ASEAN but no mechanism has materialized. In terms of regional policies, ASEAN and its dialogue partners, such as ASEAN +Three and the East Asia Summit, have not taken any positions that contradict the G20 yet. Nevertheless, in many of their interventions in G20 summits, ASEAN leaders say they oppose a “one size fits all economic strategy” – this could be confusing to the G20. ASEAN might be seen as a region with low levels of compliance to G20 commitments, especially since some Southeast Asian nations have broken commitments not to pursue protectionist policies in response to the deepening global crisis.

There is a need to strengthen ASEAN’s position in order to justify its inclusion in the G20 and to prove that its regional ambitions should be recognized. Otherwise, the G20 will largely follow the rules and agenda created by the major powers, most notably the United States, the European Union and China.

A stronger presence

There are at least three points ASEAN should act on. First, since the ASEAN secretary general has been invited to several G20 Summits, the ASEAN Secretariat needs to be strengthened to better understand and deal with G20 issues. In that way ASEAN could maintain the continuity of its positions and agenda inputs despite the rotating ASEAN chair. The secretariat needs a special office to formulate its policy papers on G20 for the secretary general and to provide technical support to the ASEAN chair, given the differences in diplomatic resources and experience from one country to another. Since the G20 negotiations, starting with working groups and sherpas for the ministerial meetings, normally start early in the year, also ASEAN needs to shape its positions as early as possible, not just a few months before the G20 Summit as the current practice.

Second, to better reflect Southeast Asian aspirations, ASEAN needs to have a wide range of public outreach on G20 issues. Indonesia and ASEAN could collaborate on regional dialogues with various stakeholders, such as business entities, think tanks, NGOs, labor unions and even students. In this way, ASEAN could develop positions on global issues through a bottom-up consultation process. In Southeast Asia public understanding of G20 issues is still quite limited.

Finally, ASEAN needs to engage G20 members in pursuing collective action in response to the G20 agenda and commitments. The meeting held a few months ago among APEC, ASEAN and G20 senior officials to discuss joint connectivity development in Medan, Indonesia was a good start on the G20’s ambition to achieve sustainable growth through infrastructure development. ASEAN could also propose close cooperation with G20 members on inclusive growth policies. In recent years, Southeast Asia has been experiencing an increase in income inequality. The Gini Coefficient, which measures income inequality, had Singapore at 47.3 percent in 2011, the highest in Southeast Asia, while the Philippines (44 percent), Thailand (42.5 percent) and Indonesia (39.4 percent) also scored high. In coping with widening income inequality, ASEAN could help implement the G20’s “growth with resilience” commitments through a knowledge-sharing platform with G20 members on social protection policies as one step.

Current opportunity

Pessimists argue that given current practice, in which the G20 host invites guests to summits from specific countries, international organizations and regional bodies, the guests only play a small role in the process. However, I am more optimistic about ASEAN’s role because it has the ability to be better represented in global diplomacy given its decades of experience building norms and making consensus decisions as an association.

Furthermore, Australia’s G20 presidency this year should provide ample opportunities for ASEAN to engage more with the G20. This is not only because of Australia’s geographic proximity to Southeast Asia, but also because of its commitment to conduct regular meetings with its neighbors to ensure that the decisions of the G20 reflect the needs of the region. Coincidentally, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the ASEAN-Australia dialogue partnership, and both countries could use the occasion to strengthen their relations within the G20 framework.

Awidya Santikajaya is on the staff of the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra.

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