The Indo-Pacific concept has been picking up steam since the year 2017, when the US President Donald Trump talked about the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy during his Asia tour. It was a belated description by the US as other countries had been talking about it on and off for quite some time. It was Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe whose statement in the Indian Parliament in 2007 reflected the spirit of this term when he talked about the “confluence of Indian and Pacific Oceans”. The 2013 Australian Defence white paper led the country’s Indo-Pacific strategic outlook, after which several other countries came up with their respective visions. In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his three-day tour to Southeast Asia, articulated his vision for the Indo-Pacific, announcing “Free Open Inclusive Indo-Pacific” (FOIIP). In fact, PM Modi, during his address, had stated that ASEAN would be the core of the Indo-Pacific region by underscoring ASEAN centrality in its vision. The statement went a long way in assuring members of the ASEAN who were skeptical of the Indo-Pacific concept and signaled the resurgence of Quad as an Indo-Pacific strategy. Although India’s accommodative approach in the Indo-Pacific has marked a nuanced difference in regional vision, its recent participation in the Quad’s elevation to the ministerial level has shown that India’s Indo-Pacific vision is largely on the lines of the Shangri La sentiment outlined by PM Modi.
In 2019, ASEAN came up with its own ‘outlook’ on the Indo-Pacific after year-long discussions. Indonesia can be given credit for taking the lead in the discussions. ASEAN countries have a strategic location in the Indo-Pacific. This led to the realization among the member nations to formalize an ASEAN-centric Indo-Pacific vision, which does not favor either the US or the Chinese initiatives in the region. The document bats for the centrality of ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific region and its desire to play a formative role in changing regional architecture. It defines ASEAN’s concept and strategy in the Indo-Pacific. The document talks about how existing forums such as the East Asia Summit could be used as a platform for dialogue and implementation in Indo-Pacific cooperation. In fact, it makes it quite clear that ASEAN is not seeking to develop any new institutions but strengthen the current mechanisms available towards bolstering its Indo-Pacific
The ASEAN document aligns with India’s concept of a “rules-based order based on international law, openness, transparency, inclusivity, and commitment to advancing economic engagement in the region.” India and ASEAN seem to find convergences in their thoughts, looking at the Indo-Pacific as a region of dialogue and cooperation rather than rivalry, envisaging development and prosperity for all. They place importance on importing the existing norms and internationally accepted rules of freedom of navigation and overflight. Both have also taken a subtle approach towards Chinese actions in the region. However, both sides have taken note of the US-China trade war, South China Sea dispute, Chinese navy operating in both Indian and Pacific oceans, and issues pertaining to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), etc. The document reflects that both India and ASEAN can work in tandem to enhance cooperation in the region. The potential understanding provides the foundation for using a mutually-acceptable and efficient regional security framework where both can undertake a proactive role.There are existing frameworks such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Mekong sub-regional cooperation frameworks, among others, that can be utilized by the two sides. India has already been working closely to move up ties with BIMSTEC nations, a glimpse of which was seen in the presence of several BIMSTEC countries at the 2019 Modi’s swearing-in ceremony as the 16th Prime Minister. India can further extend the invitation to ASEAN countries such as Indonesia and Singapore to work in BIMSTEC+ on issues such as maritime cooperation, connectivity, terrorism, cybersecurity, natural disasters, to name a few. India has been working in the area of digital connectivity with Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Projects like the BBIN, the Trilateral Highway, increasing exchange programs in higher education can go a long way in tying India and ASEAN to the Indo-Pacific agenda.
However, the maritime domain remains the key factor in India and ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific schema. Indo-Pacific, by its very name, elevates the potential of maritime strategy in the region. This allows both sides to think broadly in terms of maritime trade, blue economy, naval requirements, and capabilities, etc. India has a long coastline with a blue water navy, and 90% of international trade by volume and 77% by value are carried by sea. This makes it an important pivot in the Indo-Pacific dynamics. For India, ASEAN is not just a getaway into and out of the Indian Ocean but is one of the most dynamic groupings – economically and politically. Above all, the traditional cultural, economic, and political ties between the two allow for a more connected and closer partnership.
*** The author is currently an independent analyst of geopolitical issues, was earlier associated with Bangalore-based NIAS, and was also a Fulbright Adjunct Faculty at American University, Washington DC ***