The Southeast Asian countries have finally put out a common vision for the Indo-Pacific region. A vision document ‘ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ (AOIP) was released at the 34th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok. The AOIP has been welcomed by the international community and several countries have made official statements. The Indian foreign office spokesperson has identified several convergences in the AIOP “especially from the standpoint of principles, as well as its approach and ASEAN's listing of areas of cooperation’. The AOIP is currently a subject of debate and discussion among the strategic community, foreign policy pundits and the academia in India and like the government there is a broad agreement that the AOIP is a welcome move by the ASEAN at least on four counts.
First is with regard to the ASEAN counties’ understanding of the Indo-Pacific; India and ASEAN have a common view that the Indo-Pacific is a seamless maritime space encompassing the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions and it is ‘closely integrated and interconnected region’.
Second is about Southeast Asia as the convergent hub of economic and security engagements between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. It is a geographic reality that Southeast Asia is a convergent hub and entrepôt to the Indo-Pacific to facilitate rendezvous among China, India, Japan, South Korea, United States and ASEAN countries. Even during ancient times, Southeast Asia was the gateway that facilitated maritime commerce, movement of people, exchange of ideas and transmission of cultures among the Arabs, Indians and the Chinese.
Third, is a question; Is AOIP a strategy? Like New Delhi, ASEAN does not see the Indo-Pacific as a ‘strategy’ or an ‘exclusive club’ of few selected members. During the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018 Prime Minister Modi enunciated a clear and positive vision for ‘an inclusive and open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region’. Inclusiveness is the underlying principle and as a corollary, AIOP is not country specific. This resonates with the principles of the AOIP.
Fourth, AOIP emphasizes ASEAN’s centrality. India is not averse to this idea and acknowledges ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific as given. New Delhi “seeks to cooperate for architecture for peace and security in this region” and India has been working with ASEAN towards evolving a regional security architecture which is focused on ASEAN's centrality”.
Although the AOIP is a laudable attempt, it falls short on a number of issues which remain unexplained in the document. It is unclear if the AOIP includes eastern Indian Ocean though a reference is made to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). In New Delhi’s mental map, the Indo-Pacific region encompasses sea space from the western Pacific Ocean to the western Indian Ocean along the east coast of Africa.
Furthermore, the AOIP is overly ambitious and wants ASEAN to lead and play a key role in the building of a new geostrategic space i.e. Indo-Pacific and wants to assert ASEAN centrality in the region. It is fair to argue that the ASEAN neither has the political clout nor strategic heft to address developments in Northeast Asia such as US-China, US-DPRK, China-Taiwan or whenever ASEAN member states confront strategic and security challenges such as China-Philippines tensions over the South China Sea or China-Cambodia relations. Besides, there are well known division within the ASEAN over many political and strategic issues.
The AOIP also appears to be an attempt to glorify ASEAN’s achievements such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF), and many such mechanisms. These are indeed very useful initiatives but have been focused on non-traditional security threats and challenges. These have shied from sharp geopolitical and strategic realities such as power competition between US and China, European naval forays into South China Sea and a general military buildup by all the countries in the region including the ASEAN member states.
FOIP is also a potpourris of many issues including sustainable development goals, climate change, connectivity, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025, Seamless ASEAN Sky, ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) initiative, Fourth Industrial Revolution, etc. Many of these are being addressed at the global and regional levels and AOIP is only attempting to replicate these.
AOIP is not free from differences among the ASEAN member states; Singapore wants to discuss it further and a former Thai permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has even suggested that the ASEAN is not yet ready for this ambitious initiative. Finally, it is fair to argue that the AOIP could at best be called as ‘works in progress’.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.