The regions of Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean comprise the most dynamic region in the world, along with being an important center of economic growth that commands strong geopolitical influence. The region of Southeast Asia lies at the heart of this dynamic region, which in turn makes ASEAN critical in shaping the economic and security architecture of the region. ASEAN has engaged itself with this inclusive regional architecture with a sense of collective responsibility, shaping closer cooperation in the strategic arc of the Indo-Pacific among the various competing interests. The competing interests in the region have consisted on one side of the US’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific(FOIP) strategy, an outcome of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific one side, paving the way for countries like Australia, France, and India to come up with their country-specific individual visions and strategies needed to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific region (IPR). On the other, it comprises the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Seeing the Indo-Pacific block develop their own strategies, ASEAN nations like Indonesia and Thailand do not want the Southeast Asian region to be left out from the new geostrategic and geopolitical game developing in the region. Thereby, the main initiative for drafting the AOIP vision was undertaken by Indonesia as it wanted to evolve from a middle power to a primary power within the geostrategic theatre of the IPR. Against this backdrop, the ASEAN leader after debating and deliberating for 18 months gave birth to the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and was adopted on 34th Summit in Bangkok. The group termed it as “a milestone as the bloc now had a unified perspective on how to deal with the regional partners in IPR”.
The AOIP envisaged ASEAN’s Centrality and further aimed to enhance ASEAN’s Community building process and strengthened it by giving it a new momentum for the existing ASEAN-led mechanisms, which hitherto consisted of the East Asia Summit as the platform for dialogues and implementation of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Four key aspects of this Outlook was drawn out. The first consisted of a perspective on the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions to be closely integrated and interconnected within which ASEAN could play a central as well as strategic role. The second underscored that the Indo-Pacific region should be identified on the basis of dialogue and cooperation and not rivalry. Third, it aimed for development and prosperity for everyone. And fourth, it aimed to recognize the importance of the maritime domain to keep a tab on the evolving regional architecture. The underlining principles focused on the centrality of ASEAN, openness, transparency, inclusivity, and a rule-based framework and adherence to international law.
The AOIP’s initial draft was very Indonesia-centric, driven by Indonesia’s desire to play a primary role by ushering focus on its Global Maritime Fulcrum strategy. Therefore, Indonesia projected its role within ASEAN as a norm-setting fulcrum of connectivity and inclusivity. Also, Jakarta was not very comfortable in the already existing IPR visions proposed by the other powers. It wanted ASEAN to have an alternative vision by not aligning and accepting either America’s FOIP or Beijing’s BRI, and this, in turn, would give Indonesia’s foreign policy a distinct international aura. Taking sides would have meant a shift in ASEAN’s focus of centrality. ASEAN adopted the Indo-Pacific outlook, perhaps because other major powers have done it. However, it refuses to take sides while insisting on economic benefits from either side. When ASEAN is questioned about its stance of centrality in its Indo-Pacific outlook, it has often played up its vulnerability, that it will be crushed if it chose sides. This position is often questioned, as ASEAN, despite being a central and neutral regional player, has not really been able to either depict strong positions on regional issues nor has it criticized unlawful activities by specific countries.
Apart from Indonesia, the other ASEAN nations have also shown their adaptability in taking full advantage of their strategic location. A consolidated regional approach by ASEAN to the region is lacking. The whole purpose of ASEAN as a regional group has been diluted as most countries like Indonesia, Singapore, and Viet Nam are busy working ways to economically benefit their countries rather than thinking of economically benefitting ASEAN. ASEAN nations’ personal interests for their countries is justified, but not when they stand together as one regional unit. As such, ASEAN as a regional power hub and a player has been falling due to the self-induced greed of the Southeast Asian nations.
The situation for ASEAN could become worse without a united stand; it faces the fears of a multi-front crisis loomed with severe impact on their regional stability and security. Most of the ASEAN nations face threats from some kind of Chinese aggression. For now, China’s dominant hegemonic ways have ensured ‘compellence’ among many ASEAN countries. ASEAN has aimed for dialogue and cooperation rather than rivalry and aims for a stable risk-free diplomatic route, which is contrary to the ideas of threats from China, as seen by the US, Australia, and Japan. China’s aggressiveness in the trade war with the US and in the South China Sea have become central aspects of the Indo-Pacific concerns and needs clearer policies by regional countries, especially ASEAN nations.
The China threat is real, as the US ADM Phil Davidson in his speech titled, “China’s Challenge to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific” said “Make no mistake, we (United States) are in full-blown strategic competition with China” as the Chinese army, navy and air force challenge the regional security. Specifically, China has been developing long-range land-based missiles and anti-satellite weapons in order to threaten the US, its allies, and its partners’ interests. Quite a few regional countries like Viet Nam, Japan, and South Korea have been reinvigorating their relations with America, and they feature in the US Free, and Open Pacific strategy and an attack on partner interests means an indirect attack on the US Also, China has been excessively claiming territories in the South China Sea (SCS) and is also militarizing them artificially which has become a great global security concern. China has also rammed and sunk fishing boats of Viet Nam and the Philippines recently in violation of international laws as per the UNCLOS 1982. China’s ‘string of pearls’ network in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka and other countries in the Indian Ocean Region is a way to keep the overseas ports and infrastructure under Chinese control and remains a threat to the larger construct of the free and open Indo-Pacific including ASEAN nations.
ASEAN’s step of bringing out an Outlook on Indo-Pacific has provided a common platform to engage and evolve within the Indo-Pacific construct. The other side has been skeptical as ASEAN’s stance on China has been weak despite member countries like Viet Nam and Philippines facing issues of disputes in the South China Sea, and this question ASEAN’s strong decision-making abilities.
*** The author is a Ph.D. scholar in the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, and currently she is a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo ***