ASEAN Response to Indo-Pacific Strategy: Towards a ‘New Outlook’

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Indonesia has hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on May 10 and 11, 2023. This summit’s motto is “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth.” 

The summit aims to transform the Indo-Pacific into an area of peace and prosperity through comprehensive cooperation. This approach toward the Indo-Pacific is a continuation of the previous summits. One of the most significant outcomes of the three-day ASEAN Summit of 2022, held in Phnom Penh, was the advancement of the bilateral relations between India and the US to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). This came after the CSP that ASEAN created with Australia and China in 2021. 

A free trade agreement was also signed at the ASEAN Summit between Australia, ASEAN, and New Zealand. But the most significant prospect was the view for the Indo-Pacific Strategy. The growing geopolitical tensions and difficulties in the Indo-Pacific area were significant topics that received much attention at the ASEAN Summit. 

This issue is serious since it affects Southeast Asia’s stability and development. President Mr Jokowi of Indonesia, who later took over ASEAN’s chairmanship in 2023, said during the 2022 summit that the group’s ten member states must work to “become a peaceful region and anchor for global stability… (and), consistently uphold international law and not be a proxy (for) any powers.” 

Due to the Indo-Pacific’s growing strategic significance, including its important role in constructing the economic and security architecture, ASEAN has had to reconsider its strategy and align with foreign partners for cooperation that will arise from shared interests. And it is eventually creating a new outlook for the ASEAN states. The paper will shed light on ASEAN’s Response to the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the formulation of a new outlook.

Integration of the Indo-Pacific into ASEAN’s strategic domain

Geographically, ASEAN is located in the center of the Indo-Pacific region, which has grown more crowded and contentious with a rise in the likelihood of big power conflicts. Several Indo-Pacific nations have been interacting with ASEAN on a bilateral, regional, and multilateral basis. 

Southeast Asian nations were initially divided and hesitant to completely and formally accept the concept due to China’s sensitivity towards the Indo-Pacific. However, as the Indo-Pacific architecture changed, ASEAN was facilitated to reconsider its stance due to the evolving geopolitical challenges and fresh security threats. 

Given that ASEAN interacts with all major powers, it needed to take a more strategic stance toward the emerging Indo-Pacific geopolitics. While the Indo-Pacific is still being internalised into ASEAN’s strategic culture, the ASEAN Member States (AMS) are beginning to realise that this emerging architecture is here to stay.

The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which was established in June 2019, aims to advance a regional order in the Indo-Pacific that is based on rules. The AOIP offers a roadmap for ASEAN’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific region and emphasises ASEAN-led institutions to deepen regional and sub-regional cooperation, which would help maintain peace, freedom, and prosperity. It also promotes ASEAN Centrality. 

The AOIP presented a comprehensive picture of the Indo-Pacific and ASEAN’s perspective on it. It makes two geographical claims, the first of which is that ASEAN sees the Indo-Pacific as including the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions. The second claim is that ASEAN views the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions as intimately interwoven and interrelated, with ASEAN playing a crucial and strategic role. ASEAN does not view these regions as just adjacent territorial spaces. The AOIP also concentrated on four priority areas: maritime cooperation, connectivity, UN SDG 2030, and economic and other areas of collaboration to realise the ASEAN vision for the Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN Centrality in the Center

Both the AMS and the extra-regional countries share the Indo-Pacific concept and its goal of ensuring a safe and secure maritime space through an inclusive and multilateral approach. The official documents of the various nations, such as national security policies, defence white papers, foreign policy, marine security strategies, and other official documents, have effectively expressed this. 

Regarding the emerging Indo-Pacific architecture, a viewpoint shared by many of the countries in the region is that of ASEAN’s centrality. In addition to being essential to India’s Look and Act East policies, ASEAN plays a crucial role in the country’s Indo-Pacific strategy for promoting peace and development in the area. 

The importance of ASEAN’s centrality in the developing Indo-Pacific regional architecture was reaffirmed in the joint declaration on ASEAN-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership released on November 12, 2022. This would be essential for regional peace, stability, and prosperity. In this regard, the Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative (IPOI), first unveiled in 2019 at the 14th East Asia Summit by Indian Prime Minister Modi, intends to foster collaboration through consensus in light of the growing gaps and difficulties in the Indo-Pacific. 

The broad areas of cooperation identified by the AOIP and the seven fundamental aspects of maritime cooperation and collaboration identified by the IPOI are complementary. When the 18th ASEAN-India Summit was held on October 28, 2021, the ASEAN-India Joint Statement on Cooperation on the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific for Peace, Stability, and Prosperity in the Region was adopted. It stated that the AOIP and IPOI “share relevant fundamental principles in promoting peace and cooperation…” This was mentioned in the November 12, 2022, Joint Statement on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between ASEAN and India.

The United States supports ASEAN’s important role in the developing Indo-Pacific framework, elevating its Strategic Partnership with ASEAN to the level of a CSP in the process. As part of its Indo-Pacific Action Plan, the US has identified ten core lines of efforts within the larger Indo-Pacific Strategy. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), introduced in 2022, is one of them. Seven of the AMS have joined the IPEF, strengthening economic relations between the US and Southeast Asia and advancing a widely supported peaceful Indo-Pacific strategy.

Although there are still differences in the ASEAN nations’ levels of commitment to the Indo-Pacific, the area is at the centre of a complex and emerging architectural system. The expansion of security risks beyond territorial wars to include concerns about food security, health, and climate change has put the region under attack. 

ASEAN agrees that a stable Indo-Pacific is crucial to maintaining world peace, stability, and prosperity. Because of this, ASEAN has been pushed to work together to create the AOIP. Therefore, the AOIP envisioned the regional bloc playing a central and strategic role in fostering cooperation rather than competition, resulting in development and prosperity for all.

The operationalisation of the AOIP is one of the ASEAN leaders’ top priorities because of how drastically the world security environment has altered. The Leaders’ declaration on mainstreaming four priority areas of AOIP gave the Indo-Pacific greater significance at the 40th ASEAN Summit, which was held on November 11, 2022. Increased constructive engagement with outside partners is the goal of ASEAN discussions on further mainstreaming cooperation under the AOIP. This will increase ASEAN’s centrality, which is essential for advancing inclusivity, openness, transparency, and a norms-based framework. The Leaders’ proclamation is crucial since it emphasises the Indo-Pacific and acknowledges its place within the regional bloc.

Even though ASEAN recognises the Indo-Pacific region as a physical space, it continues to view it as two continents united with ASEAN at their centre. The AOIP was a key step in this direction because it reasserted ASEAN’s significance and neutrality in developing regional architecture and acknowledging the large geographic territory. 

Due to its role in interacting with all of the major countries, ASEAN will play a crucial role in the face of developing divergences in the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, ASEAN-led mechanisms would provide useful forums for communication and collaboration given the intricate problems the Indo-Pacific region faces regarding economy, security, and the environment.

– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in The Financial Express [Link]