Published by Norway-Asia Business Review
A few months into the job, Ambassador Mr Morten Høglund finds time to speak to us. The first-time ambassador is also the first dedicated Norwegian ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Bigger economies like Canada and the United States had dedicated ambassadors to ASEAN before and so did the European Union (EU), but no individual EU country.
The new ambassador has an extensive list of ambitions in a broad range of areas. Included are peace and reconciliation, maritime cooperation, energy, connectivity, trade, private sector development, climate change, education and culture to name a few.
Luckily Mr Høglund has extensive experience with ASEAN. As state secretary, he was responsible for setting up the partnership with ASEAN in 2015. Before the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Høglund was a member of the Norwegian Parliament for 12 years.
Of course, every one of the 10 ASEAN countries already has a Norwegian ambassador so why the need for an additional ambassador? “It’s very important to talk with an organ that sets the long-term goals, the direction all of the 10 countries strive towards. It is quite rational to seek a common set of understanding and agreement with all these 10 countries,” says Mr Høglund.
The last 50 years there hasn’t been an interstate war since ASEAN was established. According to Mr Høglund that’s pretty astonishing. “It is quite difficult to imagine a more diverse group of countries from communist states to democracies, authoritarian states and kingdoms. With that as a background one can be impressed.”
There are irregularities along the Southern Thai border, in Marawi in the Philippines and Myanmar, but no interstate wars. “We want to share our knowledge and experience for example on peace building,” Mr Høglund shares. “That being said, we’ve never denied we have a business interest in a stable region. Asia is the growth engine of the world. China’s growth is flattening a bit and Europe is still growing, but not with 5 to 7% like some countries here.”
Mr Høglund’s priorities for the upcoming years are energy, education, business, peace and oceans meaning maritime, aquaculture and cleaning up of the oceans. “The list might sound ambitious and it is, but some can be combined like maritime and education in an educational project in fishery in Vietnam,” Mr Høglund explains. At the moment more than 20 projects are in the pipeline.
An example of the knowledge Mr Høglund wants to share with ASEAN are the lessons out of the successful peace process in Colombia. The activities in the area of peace are not limited to peace processes, but also deradicalisation and prevention of radicalisation.
“Stability of ASEAN is important for Norway and Europe, so we combat the growth of fundamentalism in the region. Prevention is now a global concern, that’s why we partner up with ASEAN in this issue.”
Marawi, for example, saw an influx of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq, but also terrorists from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines coming together and destabilising a huge community, Mr Høglund continues. “This kind of security setbacks can scare off investors and of course make it a living hell for the people.” Norway has been involved in two peace processes in the Philippines; one with the communists and another with Muslim separatists.
“Another thing we’re doing is building capacity by mapping resources and people within the region. An example is a list of women in peacebuilding like mediators, in the police, military or civil service. Women and children are often the victims of conflict, but we want to involve them in the peace process,” Mr Høglund states.
Another priority with a personal drive for Mr Høglund are the oceans. On Twitter, Mr Høglund shared a picture of the “Tsunami of Trash” front page of the Jakarta Post on 23 November 2017.
“Microplastics in the ocean is a major issue all around the world and also in Asia where many of the biggest polluters reside. But they are dedicated to combat the issue also just like us. Of course, the problem is massive and complex, but there are new solutions coming up.” At the moment the embassy is considering 4 projects aimed at combatting the plastic soup.
Mr Høglund explains his personal drive to clean up the ocean. “Growing up as a young boy I would think of nature as a clear blue sky and blue ocean. If these things disappear to future generations, we have don’t something really wrong. Besides that; it’s not just an environmental issue, it’s really a human health issue. These microplastics that are polluting the sea are going in to the fish and we are eating the fish.”
After Norway’s appointment, other countries also intensified their relation with ASEAN Mr Høglund explains. Switzerland and Turkey became sectoral dialogue partners, like Norway, and Germany formed another type of partnership with ASEAN.
“Speaking for Norway, we want to be here when the economic development flies.” According to Mr Høglund, we’re just witnessing the beginning of the economic possibilities for ASEAN. “The economic integration will pick up quite rapidly. In general, the ASEAN countries are positive towards greater economic trade cooperation. Some countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Myanmar have not unleashed their full potential.”
PWC, in its report The World in 2050: How will the global economic order change?, estimates that Indonesia will become the 4th biggest economy in the world by 2050.
What will cause this major increase in spending power in just a few decades? According to Mr Høglund it is technology. “There is a lot of enthusiasm and technology allows some countries to leapfrog development.” Mr Høglund sees youth absorbing technology instantly and major challenges of a couple of years ago becoming less of a problem. The major issues like electricity, connectivity and infrastructure are less of an issue for these countries.
With 640 million people ASEAN is an interesting market. Major economic players like the United States, China, Russia, India and Australia already had an ambassador to ASEAN. Mr Høglund says “We were the first midsized economy to deploy a dedicated ambassador to ASEAN. It shows long-term commitment. Ambassadors are dialogue partners.”
ASEAN is after the EU, the most successful regional cooperation in the world according to Mr Høglund. “ASEAN has brought more openness and economic integration to the member states. They have a consensus model and some would argue that decision-making can be slow, but the list of achievements is good.”
The challenge now is closing the development gap between the higher and lower classes to maintain peace in the region says Mr Høglund. Many countries in Asia have a large young population. “You don’t want a large young population that’s frustrated and don’t see any hope. It’s the same in some parts of Europe or North Africa. This should be on the agenda for the region. Otherwise you risk setbacks, you risk stronger radical tendencies. I refer to Marawi. I think that was a wake-up call.”
A policy of inclusiveness is not such a stretch for ASEAN countries says Mr Høglund. “The region has a history of tolerance with people living side by side between religions and ethnicities. When you look back in history, at least among religions, it has not been a history of hatred. This needs to be valued and celebrated. In Indonesia, thankfully, this has been the policy of the day. But there are negative tendencies as well and that are some of the risks for a setback.”
A dedicated ambassador provides the time needed to address these risks. “Before the Embassy in Jakarta was in contact with ASEAN, but the tasks were too large to do on the side.”
ASEAN also embraces intensified external relations. On 25 January 2017, the Committee of Permanent Representatives to ASEAN (CPR) met for the first time with all the non-ASEAN ambassadors accredited to ASEAN. The new meeting is to be held twice a year “to further enhance engagement and to support the ASEAN Community Vision 2025” as stated on the website of ASEAN.
Mr Høglund has his work cut out for him. With a long list of ambitions and proper dedication, he sets out to strengthen the relationship with ASEAN and foster economic development, political stability and environmental improvements.
- In 2015 Norway became a sectoral dialogue partner with ASEAN;
- On Friday 21 July, Ambassador Morten Høglund presented his letter of credence to ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh;
- Mr Høglund was a member of parliament for 12 years followed by almost 3 years at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
- There are 11 non-ASEAN dedicated ambassadors accredited to ASEAN;
- These ambassadors are from Australia, Canada, Republic of Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, European Union, United States of America, Russian Federation, China and India.