In contemporary times, the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions are the most economically dynamic in the world. The economy has led this region to many geo-political and geo-strategic shifts. These shifts have presented opportunities as well as challenges to the region. Geo-strategically, the region opens up various possibilities of co-operation to increase employment opportunities and elevate the living standard of millions of people. Geo-politically, the rise of power has escalated economic and military rivalry. In such a scenario, ASEAN thrives to bring peace, security, stability, and prosperity for the people of South-East Asia as well as in the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions.
ASEAN, for many decades now, have been trying to successfully engage the vibrant South Eastern countries by developing an inclusive regional architecture, which would forge and shape the vision for closer co-operation among the nations of Asia Pacific. Against this backdrop, ASEAN leaders have initiated “ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific” about a year back which reinforces the ASEAN centered architecture. After a year of negotiations, ASEAN recently concluded this Outlook in the ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting held in Bangkok (20th to 23rd June 2019) during the 34th ASEAN Summit. The initiative was taken by Indonesia and was primarily based on the ideas laid out by Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. In Marsudi’s words, the Outlook encompasses an Indo-Pacific “regional architecture” which is similar to ASEAN’s “ecosystem of peace, stability, and prosperity.”
The ASEAN Outlook envisages ASEAN centrality as the underlying principle for promoting co-operation in the Indo-Pacific region with ASEAN led forums such as East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum as platforms for dialogue and implementation for various co-operation measures. The Outlook views the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions as a closely integrated and interconnected region, with ASEAN playing a central and strategic role. It focuses on dialogue and co-operation rather than rivalry and aims for development and prosperity for all. It gives importance to the maritime domain and perspective in the evolving regional architecture. Furthermore, it works towards promoting an enabling environment for peace, stability, and prosperity in the region by addressing some of the common challenges. It would also provide added value to community-building processes and the existing regional arrangements.
The Outlook is based on the principles of strengthening ASEAN’s centrality, openness, transparency, inclusivity by following a rule-based framework of good governance, and respect for sovereignty, non-intervention, and complementarities. It works with existing co-operation frameworks of equality, mutual respect, mutual trust, mutual benefit, and respect for international laws. In order to realize its principles, four main broad areas of co-operation are identified, namely, maritime co-operation, connectivity, UN Sustainable Goals 2030, and Economic co-operation.
The Outlook takes a safe diplomatic route, which does not mention anything of the geo-political shifts such as US-China trade war in the document. However, unlike other proposed policies for Indo-Pacific region such as Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) by Donald Trump or Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper, the Outlook mentions of achieving “dialogue and co-operation instead of rivalry.” The Outlook has once again sowed the seeds of Non-Alignment because of its neutral policy of economic integration and by not aligning with either of the economic giants, US or China.
The Outlook is seemingly attractive towards India too. It will be a positive factor in boosting India-ASEAN ties. The document does lay down many areas of co-operation within the countries of the Pacific region. India, which looks forward to free, open, inclusive, rule-based region has warmly welcomed the Outlook. The Outlook mentions addressing concerned areas such as transnational crimes including trafficking in persons or of illicit drugs, to protect the livelihood of coastal communities and to support small scale fishing communities, and capacity building, all of which has vast opportunities for India to cooperate. India already complies with ASEAN vision on connectivity, which requires co-operation amongst nations to achieve a seamlessly and comprehensively connected and integrated region, which will promote competitiveness, inclusiveness, and a greater sense of community. With this Outlook, more opportunities will open up for India to explore potential synergies with sub-regional frameworks such as IORA, BIMSTEC, BIMP-EAGA, Mekong Ganga frameworks. India’s Act East Policy, Sagarmala Project, the extension of Trilateral Highway to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), QUAD is complementary and supportive of the bigger Master Plan for ASEAN Connectivity 2025. Additionally, India’s decision to set up an Indo-Pacific wing in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) points towards a broader cooperative framework.
The ASEAN Uutlook defines itself as an approach to curb the rise of material powers. This rise needs to be curtailed by avoiding the deepening of mistrust, miscalculation, and patterns of behavior based on a zero-sum game. The Outlook is significant as ASEAN now has a common approach on various issues. Despite not establishing formalized institutions such as the European Union, ASEAN has made itself the lynchpin of East Asia. Now with this Outlook, ASEAN would definitely encompass the whole Asian-Pacific region. Whether ASEAN Outlook will be a stabilizer in this region or increase more divisions and confrontations, is another discourse altogether for debate.
*** The author is a Research Scholar at Dibrugarh University ***