The Joint Communiqué after the 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in August 2018 stated that any conceptualisation of the Indo-Pacific must acknowledge ‘ASEAN centrality’ and proposed that Indo-Pacific and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can together create institutional synergies. Among the ASEAN members too, there have been discussions on how to buttress ‘ASEAN centrality’ in any new institutional arrangement or geopolitical concepts such as the Indo-Pacific.
Several critiques have been put forth by strategic commentators to evaluate the role of and need for the Indo-Pacific. As far as its spatial contours and geographical understanding is concerned, for India and Japan, the Indo-Pacific encompasses the whole of Indian Ocean including Africa’s eastern sea board and Pacific Ocean fused together; however, Australia’s cartographic delimitation makes India and Bay of Bengal as the western limits, and South Pacific region marks the western edge of its understanding of the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, for US, the geographical expanse of the Indo-Pacific includes India and its earlier delimitation of the Asia-Pacific. As a result of these geographical understandings, expressions such as Indo-Asia-Pacific or Asia–Indo-Pacific have found reference in strategic literature and put a question mark on the future of Indo-Pacific.
There are also calls for institutionalizing interactions between Indian Ocean Naval Symposiums (IONS) and Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) for better maritime and naval cooperation. Similarly, there is a strong belief that when India is linked with the Asia–Pacific through institutional engagements in organizations such as the APEC then the objective of the Indo-Pacific would be met.
While there is euphoria about the future of Indo-Pacific, most major powers are playing a brinkmanship game which raises the issue whether Indo-Pacific is an important futuristic vision or a hazy dream. The argument in this regard is that when there are viable institutional mechanisms which involves majority of the players in the Asian region then what is the necessity to build an exclusive club. In this context, it is proposed that an East Asian Regional Security (EARS) mechanism would be a better option. This is based on the belief that the geographic contours of East Asian Summit (EAS) countries and those of the Indo-Pacific overlap, apart from the fact that China and Russia are excluded in the Indo-Pacific construct.
The EARS mechanism would provide at least five benefits to generate a cohesive approach as also building trust among the dialogue partners and uphold ‘ASEAN centrality’ as the nucleus. First, East Asian Summit (EAS) is still an informal structure and in case it is institutionalized into a formal mechanism, it would provide platform for the countries to engage in open discussion on building security architecture and be accepted as a regional mechanism. ASEAN has successfully developed cooperative structures on non-traditional security issues including disaster relief, maritime security, food, water, pandemics and cyber security under the EAS. However, core security issues have not been addressed primarily due to constraints such as consensus among members that ASEAN has been working with.
Second, ASEAN has set up the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) dialogue partners, Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMM), and ASEAN+1 (dialogue partners) Summit meetings which deal with various aspects related to defence and security. However, these groupings need recalibration of agenda to include issues related to larger region rather than concentrating on the Southeast Asian region and ASEAN specific agenda.
Third, by default, inclusion of Russia and China would provide the high table for discussion otherwise the Chinese Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and Indo-Pacific would be conflicting thus leading to frictions. For instance, the differences on the issue of PCA ruling on the South China Sea and lack of understanding between China and the US have made regional waters as the potential hot spots.
Fourth, the new understanding between US and North Korea encourages the latter to participate in the process, and an informal meeting between EARS members and North Korea can be envisaged for a long term solution.
Lastly, the existing processes as listed earlier are sufficient and offer an inclusive mechanism, can avoid ‘strategic cacophony’, and offer the possibility of ‘collective symphony’. EARS would thus provide a specific forum with a set objective of developing cooperative security fundamentals.
Many of the ASEAN members such as Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore have argued for an open and inclusive architecture. Further, dialogue partners such as India and Korea have buttressed the need for dialogue and discussion with transparency and rules based order as the mainstay of any security framework.
Developing mutual trust can only usher a greater deal of responsibility rather than loud noises that has been the rule in the recent past. Both, ASEAN members and its dialogue partners, are in agreement over the critical necessity for economic and social development, and believe that regular interaction can clearly set responsibilities rather than sounding military alarm bells.
Given that most concepts need institutional support as also an economic vision, Indo-Pacific is a working concept with generic answers which have resonated in most of the debates and discussion among subscribing powers. However, there is still the need for an institutional framework that is inclusive and acceptable to all. Identifying the most accepted and viable structure would be the first step towards comprehensive regional security architecture.
Dr Pankaj Jha is faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana.