ASEAN Back in the Indo-Pacific Saddle
Written by: Seonyoung Yang
Indo-Pacific has been one of the most spoken buzzwords regionally and globally. Discourses for conceptualizing Indo-Pacific are still in progress. The rift caused by exacerbated US-China rivalry, the Ukraine crisis, and energy and food prices ensued complex enigmas for all stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly for ASEAN. This essay, therefore, analyses the embedded meaning of various Indo-Pacific strategies, including the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific, and suggests how ASEAN should maneuver the strategic reefs in Indo-Pacific.
The Asia’s Geopolitical Circumstances
The US-China tit-for-tat has gotten only worsened since the Ukraine crisis. The US, EU, and its allies have criticized Russia for its horrendous attack and supported Ukraine in an unprecedented manner not only in humanitarian aid but also militarily, albeit the very foundation of the EU, the European Coal and Steel Community, aiming to deter the war under any circumstances.
A mammoth in the room, China has never been quiet per se, but its tone and demand have been stronger over recent years. Xi Jinping even started proposing new initiatives such as Global Development Initiative to regain respect worldwide after overcoming a century of humiliation. From the trajectory of power dynamics, though, it is natural to observe such frictions between existing and emerging ones.
In this inimical dynamic, small and middle countries across Indo-Pacific squirm to avoid being entrapped. Amitav Acharya (2021) defined that “‘Asia’ was built by nationalists, ‘Asia-Pacific’ by economists, ‘East Asia’ by culturalists, whereas ‘Indo-Pacific’ by strategists’”. This definition is succinct yet clear to understand why some countries are in favor or against ‘Indo-Pacific’.
Geographically speaking, China is nestled within the Asia-Pacific region. Since China prioritizes economic development for regional cooperation, such as Belt and Road Initiative, hence tenaciously sticks to Asia-Pacific. On the other hand, as defined by Archarya, Indo-Pacific, encompassing two vast oceans, the maritime strategy is a salient feature. It is worth remembering Wang Gungwu (2019) argued that the maritime domain has been the historians’ and strategists’ core interest for colonial expansion leading to globalization and, furthermore “the focus of global power” (p 129).
Asia-Pacific is arguably obsolete, although China and Russia grapple with holding on to it. Wang (2019) also acutely analyzed that Indo-Pacific would shed more light than ever in the era of paradigm shift. He further argued that ASEAN, therefore, would be given a central role and closely watched by superpowers in the Indo-Pacific domain. Conceptual geographical shifts in parallel with paradigm shifts are being occurred. Therefore, we may need to put howling arguments aside but collect heads to think of paradigm shifts within Indo-Pacific and decode various strategies, outlooks, and frameworks available until today.
ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific
The champion of ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) is undoubtedly Indonesia. As the biggest archipelago in the world, encompassing the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, Indonesia’s ambition to become the global maritime fulcrum is intrinsic. Some naysayers quickly gnaw at the AOIP’s four main areas by belittling those as nothing an inch closer to so-called a strategy. The four main areas, namely maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development and economic cooperation, and other areas, are indeed functional but clearly what ASEAN needs in high demand.
Pragmatists are dissatisfied with the progress of AOIP. They even vilified that incompetence as ASEAN’s chronic disease. The moderate argue that ASEAN threw a dummy in the name of AOIP to collect ideas and tighten its grip, a convening power, to explore, define and develop ideas of Indo-Pacific. Bearing such arguments, Endy Bayuni (2022)calls on superpowers to reconsider Indo-Pacific as a multi-player poker game, not a duel chess game. ASEAN does not wish to judge but remains relevant within and beyond Indo-Pacific to exercise its leeway and leniency for every player, whether big or small, to take part without being neglected.
Earlier this year, Indonesia proposed to mainstream AOIP in all ASEAN-led mechanisms. Still veiled to dialogue partners, this would not be a meticulous manual. Instead, it would suggest a loose guideline allowing maximum flexibility among all parties interested in implementing AOIP with ASEAN on lead. Even though EAS is explicitly mentioned twice as the relevant implementing mechanism in the AOIP, this leaders-led forum does not befit the ASEAN’s initial plan, given the challenging geostrategic circumstances. Alternatively, ASEAN might begin its ‘mainstreaming’ AOIP by incorporating the four main areas in each ASEAN+1 mechanism. In doing so, ASEAN may have multiple options and means to concretize the AOIP. This choice, however, might lead to ambivalence which may turn out as competition among dialogue partners but overlapping and redundancy on the other hand.
In order to decode ASEAN’s ways of thinking, psychological approaches might be useful. Richard Nisbett wrote an eye-opening book, ‘The Geography of Thoughts‘. Long story short, he argued that Westerners, precisely Europeans, and North Americans tend to think they are in control of their surroundings. They often consider that the rules and laws governed in society are concluded from lengthy discussions and subsidiary decision-making processes. Therefore rules-based and lawful society should not be interfered with or distorted by any supremacy. Asians, on the other hand, think nothing is permanent; hence adaptability to change and environment is crucial rather than sticking to control. Rules and laws are therefore meant to be changed constantly. ASEAN, in this regard, is eager to create a conducive environment where different actors and ideas could be freely floated but not necessarily conflicted. ASEAN would like to be a respected moderator who can exercise adroitness and wisdom to encourage everyone, even dichotomous actors, to try to seek a middle way. Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) is a prime example in which ASEAN has paved the way to consolidate its identity and suggest means under six fundamental principles as a proactive regional group pursuing peace and prosperity. Established in 1976 by five founding member-states, 49 countries are listed as high contracting parties within and beyond the region. TAC suggests six principles that are characterized as highly flexible yet adamant on sovereignty, independence, non-interference, and peaceful settlement. Accession to TAC is a prerequisite for any external parties to tie a knot with ASEAN. Such conditions optimize ASEAN’s leverages to set the agenda for starting businesses in ASEAN Way by maximizing flexibility and inclusivity. Leaving space for maneuvering is ASEAN’s disposition in diplomacy, which is more pronounced in dealing with external partners.
External partners’ contribution to the AOIP
Thus far, Japan, the US, Australia, and the EU, including France, Germany, and the Netherlands, have announced Indo-Pacific strategies. Among ASEAN Dialogue Partners, Japan and India adopted the Leaders’ Statement on pledging to seek concrete cooperation for implementing AOIP.
Dr Shofwan argued that all major powers label strategies or frameworks for their Indo-Pacific concepts while ASEAN retains low-key, using a neutral term, ‘outlook’. Unlike AOIP, major powers’ strategies or initiatives outline values such as freedom, openness, and democracy. These liberal values are embedded in AOIP to some extent but not outspokenly. These values are selective depending on the areas of cooperation or even partners ASEAN wishes to work with. Clearly, options are vast and never limited.
The US allies and partners have published Indo-Pacific initiatives besides the Republic of Korea. The incumbent government has announced a plan to announce its own Indo-Pacific framework underpinning “a pivotal global state, with a focus on promoting freedom, peace, and prosperity based on Seoul’s liberal democratic values” (Ramon Pacheco Pardo, 2022). Concerns and questions have loomed over the continuity of Korea’s full-fledged support to ASEAN under the New Southern Policy. Nevertheless, ASEAN is considered the centerpiece of its newly unveiled Indo-Pacific framework later this year.
Indo-Pacific is arguably the busiest area where multipolarity would be revealed sporadically. As long as ASEAN remains relevant as a regional group, harsh skepticism over ASEAN’s disunity or being a toothless talk shop would gradually fade away. How ASEAN could safely stay relevant in the Indo-Pacific realm lies in ASEAN’s wisdom. ASEAN needs to be more eclectic to garner various Indo-Pacific strategies and concepts to revisit and detail its very own AOIP step by step. ASEAN never rejected proposals from elsewhere bluntly, and it never will. Conflicting or coalescing into something better is up to ASEAN’s call. For the latter, ASEAN cautiously calculates its psychological strengths and weakness to converge various Indo-Pacific concepts on the ‘middle way’ to encourage ASEAN’s role in the era of paradigm shift.
- Seonyoung Yang Senior Research Officer at the Mission of the Republic of Korea to ASEAN (2013-Present), MSc of EU Studies and Communication Science from Vrije Universiteit Brussel (2011-12), Graduate Diploma in International Relations from London School of Economics (2016-17), BA of Linguistics from University of East Anglia (2006-9)
- The Diplomat (2020, August 20), ‘China’s ‘Never Again’ Mentality,’ Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2020/08/chinas-never-again-mentality/
- Amitave Acharya (2021, July 8), Retrieved from https://twitter.com/amitavacharya/status/1413139276561145861
- Wang Gungwu (2019), ‘China Reconnects: Joining a Deep-rooted Past to a New World Order,’ Singapore: World Scientific, p. 129
- Ibid (2019: p. 161)
- Ibid (2019: p. 18)
- ASEAN Secretariat, ‘ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific’ (2019) Retrieved from https://asean.org/speechandstatement/asean-outlook-on-the-indo-pacific/
- Endy Bayuni (2022, July 19) ‘Poker, not chess, is the name of the game in the Indo-Pacific’ available on The Jakarta Post, Retrieved from https://www.thejakartapost.com/paper/2022/07/19/poker-not-chess-is-the-name-of-the-game-in-the-indo-pacific.html
- Richard E. Nisbett (2003), ‘The Geography of Thoughts: How Asians and Westerners think differently,’ New York: Free Press
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (2020, November 12), ‘Joint Statement of the 23rd ASEAN-Japan Summit on Cooperation on ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,’ Retrieved from https://www.mofa.go.jp/files/100114942.pdf
- ASEAN Secretariat (2022, August 16), ‘Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC),’ Retrieved fromhttps://asean.org/our-communities/asean-political-security-community/outward-looking-community/treaty-of-amity-and-cooperation-in-southeast-asia-tac/#:~:text=The%20Treaty%20of%20Amity%20and,in%20the%20region%20and%20beyond
- ASEAN Secretariat (2021, October 28), ‘ASEAN-India Joint Statement on Cooperation on the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific for Peace, Stability, and Prosperity in the Region,’ Retrieved from https://asean.org/asean-india-joint-statement-on-cooperation-on-the-asean-outlook-on-the-indo-pacific-for-peace-stability-and-prosperity-in-the-region/
- Habibie Center Youtube (2022, July 6), ‘Talking ASEAN on “The US’ New Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Future of Taiwan’s Strait Stability,’ Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNXuEeJ66Rs
- Ramon Pacheco Pardo (2022) ‘South Korea as a global pivotal state: the role of partners’ https://brussels-school.be/publications/policy-briefs/south-korea-%E2%80%9Cglobal-pivotal-state%E2%80%9D-role-partners Brussels: CSDS Policy Brief 07/2022