ASEAN Takes Baby Steps Towards Indo-Pacific

The ASEAN Foreign Ministers returned to respective capitals earlier this month with a better understanding of Indo-Pacific after their meeting in Singapore. Based on a paper authored by Indonesia, they agreed to hold further discussions on the concept in the hope that it supports an “ASEAN-centric regional architecture that is open, transparent, and inclusive and rules based”, the key principles of the ten-member state’s grouping. The concept was introduced among the ASEAN countries in April 2018 at the 32nd ASEAN summit but they did not take any position then on the issue.

The term Indo-Pacific has found reference in joint statements, speeches by leaders, strategic discourse as well as academia among many Asian powers including the US. Among the ASEAN countries, the term has found resonance in Indonesia and it has endorsed the concept. The May 2018 Shared Vision of India-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific agreement between India and Indonesia is a good example.

However, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan noted that his country has “not yet fleshed out” the concept and “We never sign on to anything unless we know exactly what it means,” Also, “we need to be very clear when we throw alphabet soup at each other that we define and understand what exactly you mean, what are the values, and principles behind it, and what we actually want to achieve.”

There are at least four reasons which should encourage the ASEAN member countries to endorse and internalize the idea of Indo-Pacific. First, is strategic location of the region which places the ASEAN in the middle of the Indian-Pacific oceanic continuum; it is a maritime gateway and this geographic reality endows it the advantages of facilitating global trade through the Straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok, a feature that is traced to ancient times and has enormous historical significance.

Second, the ASEAN will be able to steer the agenda of its ‘centrality’ in the region which in recent times had come under threat with the evolution of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) among Australia, India, Japan and the US. This led the ASEAN to believe that it was being marginalized despite its politico-diplomatic-economic-strategic investments made over the last three decades through institutions such as the ARF, EAS, ADMM Plus. This issue has been ‘put to rest’ and Australia, India, Japan and the US have endorsed ‘ASEAN centrality’ during various meetings such as the QSD in June 2018 and ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in August 2018.

Third, it is not in ASEAN’s interest that any one country be allowed to dominate the region. In this context, Southeast Asian countries are not immune to the ongoing ‘power transition’ featuring competition between United States and China marked by relative shift in the US-China military balance of power, the US decision to withdraw from the TPP and the ongoing trade war.

Fourth, the Indo-Pacific provides a unique opportunity to the ASEAN to help socialize China to Indo-Pacific. Beijing sees both the Indo-Pacific and the QSD as US’ attempts to contain China by involving other Asian powers i.e. Australia, India and Japan. Such an approach helps ASEAN to creatively synergize the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ promoted by the US and its allies and partners, and the Belt and Road Initiative by China which is seen by the US as predatory and premised on power and interest maximization laying the foundations for its regional and global leadership. ASEAN appear to exude collective confidence and is suitably positioned to managing the two dominant protagonists and their contending discourses and perceptions of each other.

There are varieties of interlocking political, economic and security issues embedded in the concept of Indo-Pacific. ASEAN can be expected to come up with its own version of Indo-Pacific based on at least three elements (a) its own principles and understanding of the concept; (b) based on the promoters of the concept of Indo-Pacific; and (c) addressing Chinese apprehensions. The key ideas would be free and open, rules-based, inclusive, complementary, and those promoted by the ASEAN such its centrality, ASEAN-led mechanism, norms, values, and dialogue.

However, it remains to be seen how ‘Indo-Pacific’, ‘Quad’ and the ‘Belt Road Initiative’ that have foundation in ‘realism’ are managed within a largely constructive agenda promoted by the ASEAN for which there are no easy answers. But ASEAN has sophisticated mechanisms in its diplomatic toolkit, and based on its past successes, it is fair to argue that it would sail through the evolving turbulence in Indo-Pacific waters.

Finally, Indo-Pacific is increasingly intertwined with the ASEAN's political and economic development, and the grouping expects to be ‘consulted and involved’. It will be on the agenda for discussions during the future ASEAN summits, and in ministerial and senior officials meetings. Thailand, the next chair of the ASEAN, may even prepare a report based on various positions taken by the ASEAN member countries.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is former Director National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi and is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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