What’s ASEAN’s Outlook on the Dynamic Indo-Pacific?
ASEAN has a role to play in strengthening its sense of multilateralism. (Photo: EPA/EFE)
By Somanith Samath Chan

What’s ASEAN’s Outlook on the Dynamic Indo-Pacific?

Jul. 23, 2019  |     |  0 comments

To many regional observers, it is not possible to construct a single accurate definition of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ as its gravity undergoes multi-polarity, dynamic balance of power, and blurred web of relationships between multiple stakeholders. The term itself is geopolitically constructed, rather than coined by geographical traits. Locating in great powers’ cross-cutting interest, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asia Nations) matters and thus has a role to play in strengthening its sense of multilateralism to ward off the adverse effects of power competition. It is in the interest of ASEAN to take the lead of evolving regional order that shapes the people’s prosperity in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region free from major powers’ dictation.

‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’: US-centric Regional Order?

According to the Australian Foreign Policy White Paper, Indo-Pacific is defined as a geographical boundary ranging from the Eastern Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean connected by Southeast Asia, including India and the US. ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ is the new concept plan of US grand strategy that shapes regional security landscape as it came after Trump’s reengagement diplomacy during the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit  in Danang, following his multilateral setback and withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The Free and Open Indo-Pacific, known as FOIP, is a collective strategy of US, Japan, Australia, and India. The term ‘Free’ means every country is free to make sovereign choices of their own futures, manage their own resources, and establish their relations with major powers. While the term ‘Open’ refers to the avoidance of closed sphere of influence and welcome diverse partnership. Within this framework, the US is proposing and pushing a renewal of the Quad cooperation, which is a dynamic security architecture among four large democracies — US, Japan, Australia, and India. The US-led multilayered strategies, from ‘Asia Pivot’ to this ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, seek any means to ensure that America remains unobstructed and Washington does not hesitate to counter any challenge to its existing, ‘rules-based international order’ or ‘US-centric regional order’.

Through Indo-Pacific strategy, American foreign policy is navigating to stretch out its strategic interest further than Asia-Pacific region to Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. On top of that, the rise of China and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) beyond its traditional foreign policy, has posed formidable challenges to American-led liberal order in this wider region. Against this backdrop, FOIP is trying to offer ASEAN states an alternative to fix ‘China’s Cheque book Diplomacy’, stemming from non-transparent huge loans in infrastructure projects, by injecting three key pillars of cooperation: economic, governance, and security. Although, speaking of economic partnership, American actions have not yet been justified. To a large extent, America is instead promoting its values of democracy, good governance and transparency as opposed to Japanese vision that focuses on enhancing connectivity and infrastructure.

As the sense of ‘Pax-Sinica’ and Sino-centric regional order gradually overshadowed the US primacy in the region, the US is trying to lessen China’s bigger role in East Asian regionalism and inject its value of preserving peace and stability in the region.

ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific: ASEAN Centrality?

Southeast Asia lies in the point of intersection between Asia-Pacific, Indian Ocean and other dynamic regions which are deemed great powers’ contested sphere of influence. Competition is becoming vibrant when China’s BRI can address ASEAN’s demand by pledging at least USD 1.024 trillion for infrastructure financing, in that same manner, Washington also announced its efforts to give USD 113 million ‘down payment’ for future US engagement under Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy.

Given the height of Sino-centric and US-centric contested regional order, ASEAN has voiced its concerns over the undesirable effects. ASEAN wants to claim a role, occupying a driver seat in East Asian regionalism, to mitigate great powers’ rivalry and bring regional issues on high table through its way of multilateral diplomacy. ASEAN, thus, could be a model for such engagement and negotiations as it strives to highlight its leadership role in managing the overlapping regional initiatives and constructing its own ASEAN-driven regional architecture. This FOIP strategy, otherwise, remains uncertain between their members. To many, it is viewed as a concept plan rather than a clear-cutting initiative. The whole strategy is said to include security, economic, and infrastructure development notwithstanding, the US strongly emphasized security trends in stark contrast to the Japanese one that focuses on free trade and connectivity.

To the perspective of many scholars, ASEAN remains a ‘talk shop’ forum which lacks teeth and focus.

To minimize this fervent competition and uncertainty, ASEAN has finally disclosed its own version, the so-called ‘ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific’ (AOIP), during the 34th ASEAN Summit 2019 in Bangkok. This document has long been discussed for over two years since the inception of US-led FOIP and Japan’s FOIP and just reached compromise between ASEAN members. The main objective of AOIP is to further promote peace, stability, prosperity and rules-based regional order by seeking complementarities, value-added, and mutually beneficial cooperation between various regional mechanisms, rather than in a zero-sum game manner. Through this outlook, ASEAN members have so far agreed to boost the ASEAN-centered regional architecture and ASEAN Community Building process by strengthening the existing institutional mechanism.


The major motive behind its creation and prolonged discussion is all in all about one term, ‘ASEAN Centrality’. ‘ASEAN Centrality’ has been well known as a fixed terminology in the vocabulary of Southeast Asian and East Asian international relations for decades. ASEAN centrality is literally derived from the notion of ‘ASEAN Way’ and 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) which are the guiding principles of major powers’ interaction in the region. ASEAN centrality refers to ASEAN’s core role in optimizing ASEAN-led mechanism and shaping the behavior of major powers to respect ASEAN way of multilateral diplomacy, particularly non-interference, consensus-based and non-confrontational approach. To ensure that, ASEAN enjoys the central position to occupy the driver seat in ASEAN-led platforms such as East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM Plus), ASEAN Plus Three (APT); all key external partners need to respect such a role.


Hence, this outlook is giving ASEAN a new momentum, not to replace existing ones, but to forge a region of openness, inclusiveness, transparency, mutual trust and confidence with its fulcrum role to drive the evolving regional architecture. Moreover, AOIP also offers bargaining power and opens up possibilities for ASEAN to explore the ‘spill-over’ effects of functional cooperation with external partners beyond security framework. Unlike FOIP which focused on security architecture, AOIP is widened to new priority areas of cooperation, ranging from maritime security cooperation to infrastructure connectivity, UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030, digital economy to Information, Communication, Technology (ICT) cooperation.


Weaknesses and Challenges Ahead

The key to this outlook’s strength is ASEAN centrality and unity. But to what extent can the implementation go in concert with stated objectives and principles? To the perspective of many scholars, ASEAN remains a ‘talk shop’ forum which lacks teeth and focus. ASEAN can barely find its feet, and somehow is not effective in jointly addressing security megatrends and forging common security architecture.


The main challenge of AOIP is to which certain degree ASEAN can nourish its ‘Unity in Diversity’ and effectively deal with external influences. As an obvious sight, ASEAN is an organization which is extremely diverse in terms of historical narrative, political system, identity, and economic strength. Each member has different foreign policy directions, worldviews, and strategic viewpoints towards Indo-Pacific dynamism. They do not hold a common view on what factors constitute a rules-based order; it depends on their core national interests and positions of power within international system to varying degrees. Strategic interest defines foreign policy direction and there is no universal code of conduct in diplomacy and international relations as interest is spearheaded. Member states have respective bilateral interest with great powers which can, more or less, impede the full and effective implementation of this outlook. In the same vein, the shifting balance of power in the region also challenges existing ASEAN-led platforms, calling ASEAN Centrality into question. ASEAN should have a clear and common group strategy about its regional goals and community building process to curb major power influences.


Another significant challenge of AOIP is the institutional practices of ASEAN-centered approach itself which can either be the strength or the weakness of institutionalization. Non-binding principles and consensus-based norms will continue to be the AOIP's obstacles. The stipulated principles in AOIP will not create legally-binding obligations upon major powers. Consensus will continue to prolong further discussion and the evolution of the outlook. Reaching a compromise and consensus consumes much time to adopt each principle and the ends do not fully justify the means because the legal commitment and obligation is more likely to pay lip service to the stated principles.

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