Why ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific outlook matters
12 Aug 2019|

After more than a year of deliberation, ASEAN adopted the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ on 23 June. The outlook then got an airing at the ASEAN Regional Forum meetings in Bangkok. The document ‘provides a guide for ASEAN’s engagement in the Asia–Pacific and Indian Ocean regions’ and resembles an Indonesian-conceived plan.

The idea of the Indo-Pacific as a regional concept isn’t new and has been widely discussed in the policy community as a way to link the Indian and Pacific oceans, and give greater recognition to the role of India and Indonesia in any regional strategic formulation. But the Indo-Pacific concept took on more life and meaning with the Trump administration’s adoption of it.

As a leader of ASEAN, Indonesia is uncomfortable with the US approach, seeing it as an exclusionary and aimed at isolating China. Jakarta sees the ‘Quad’—comprising the United States, Japan, Australia and India—as a potential strategic coalition of ‘outside’ powers without ASEAN’s involvement. In response, Jakarta has been developing an ASEAN-centred Indo-Pacific strategy that is more consistent with ASEAN’s principles of inclusiveness (including towards China) and consensus-building, and its stress on a normative, political and diplomatic—rather than an excessively military–strategic—approach.

The differences are captured in the terminology used by the two countries to articulate their Indo-Pacific visions. Briefly, the US wants a ‘free’ and ‘open’ Indo-Pacific, echoing the wording used by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but with a more overt military–strategic orientation. In comparison, Indonesia seeks an ‘open’ and ‘inclusive’ Indo-Pacific. The US doesn’t use ‘inclusive’, while Indonesia doesn’t use ‘free’.

The US idea of a ‘free’ Indo-Pacific identifies domestic political openness and good governance as key ingredients—putting it at odds with China—while Jakarta’s stress on ‘inclusivity’ implies that its policy is not meant to isolate China. India seems to be taking a middle path, calling for a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region’.

The outlook upholds the vision put forth by Jakarta, whose interest in the Indo-Pacific idea is driven by President Joko Widodo’s goal of turning Indonesia into a ‘maritime fulcrum’. ‘The Outlook is intended to be inclusive in terms of ideas and proposals.’ There’s no mention of any country or major power, not just China and the US, but also Japan, India and Russia. It avoids any strategic language or tone and there are no military aspects to the document.

Rather, it is more consistent with ASEAN’s ‘comprehensive security’ approach with an emphasis on ‘implementing existing and exploring other ASEAN priority areas of cooperation, including maritime cooperation, connectivity, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and economic and other possible areas of cooperation’.

The outlook strongly recalls the traditional ‘ASEAN way’ of avoiding legalistic institutionalisation—it’s meant to be a ‘guide’, not a legal document or treaty.

Moreover, the outlook stresses reliance on existing ASEAN norms and mechanisms, such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and the East Asia Summit. It’s ‘not aimed at creating new mechanisms or replacing existing ones; rather, it is an Outlook intended to enhance ASEAN’s Community building process and to strengthen and give new momentum for existing ASEAN-led mechanisms to better face challenges and seize opportunities arising from the current and future regional and global environments’. This reflects a determination to preserve ASEAN centrality in the development of Indo-Pacific architecture and counter any linking of the Indo-Pacific to a balance-of-power approach.

Some Western observers dismiss the outlook’s importance because it doesn’t target China specifically or carry compliance measures, but this criticism misses the point: this is how ASEAN has been doing its business since its founding. ASEAN’s main roles in regional security have been in norm-setting and confidence-building, rather than in exercising hard power or conflict-resolution.

What’s disappointing is not the document, but the gap between how the West sees ASEAN and how ASEAN sees itself. ASEAN is bound to disappoint those who would like to see it act like a great power in a classical concert of powers. That is not what ASEAN is or what it will ever be.

While the outlook is written in typical ‘ASEAN speak’, it doesn’t blank out the crucial issues and principles at stake in current maritime disputes in the South China Sea. The document stresses ‘cooperation for peaceful settlement of disputes; promoting maritime safety and security, and freedom of navigation and overflight; … sea piracy, robbery and armed robbery against ships at sea; and the like’.

The outlook avoids the term ‘free’, which China sees as being directed against it. At the same time, it contains references to ‘freedom of navigation’, which is Washington’s area of emphasis. ASEAN is playing its classic role as a regional consensus-builder, which is all the more essential at a time of rising bilateral tensions between the US and China.

In the final analysis, the outlook is an act of diplomatic and political assertion by ASEAN. ASEAN is telling the world that it has its own way of developing the Indo-Pacific idea—previously pushed by outside powers such as Japan, Australia, India and the US—and that it won’t let outside powers dominate the ‘discourse’ on the Indo-Pacific. The outlook also legitimises the role of Indonesia, possibly the only Southeast Asian country with the size, geography and potential power to stand up to China and the US, or indeed to all major powers. This is what’s critical to the preservation of ASEAN centrality.