Renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific – a massive swathe of the world tracing up the east coast of Africa, touching Gulf states before reaching around the subcontinent and encompassing much of East Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and eventually Hawaii – has watchers wondering if we’re set to witness the birth of a new formalized regional grouping.
The term first found traction in 2007, but over the last six months has been increasingly pushed by powers across the world as a savvy balance to the dominance of China and a modern fix to last century’s regional delineations, which no longer adequately reflect relations.
Marty Natalegawa was quick to remind a standing-room only function hosted by the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia in Jakarta on Wednesday, February 7, that the concept of an Indo-Pacific focus is not new for Indonesia. During his time with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which culminated in his appointment as foreign minister under former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration, a focus on the Indo-Pacific had been consuming at points but was often usurped by the prominence of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But he warns against moving too quickly.
“The concept has recently gained currency, especially following Trump’s visit to Southeast Asia,” he said, referring to the U.S. president’s attendance at both APEC and the East Asia Summit in November. “But it far predates 2017. An Indo-Pacific framework has always informed and motivated Indonesian foreign policy even at the risk of being seen as a caricature or oversimplification.”
He points to Indonesia’s 2002 chairmanship of ASEAN, spent pushing for stronger engagement with India, Australia, and New Zealand, as evidence of this. But he concedes that the concept dropped largely off the radar until a brief reemergence in 2013 and early 2014.
The heavy-handed use of the term by Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both in the lead up to and during the president’s time in the region saw the concept thrust back onto the agenda. Writing in 2013, Rory Medcalf of the Australian National University’s National Security College said the term is about “diluting China’s profile, or diluting China’s impact in a larger ocean, in a wider regional context.”
It’s a point current Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, and her predecessor Natalegawa, have tiptoed around but is plainly obvious. As ASEAN increasingly splits along outwardly pro- and quietly critical China lines, formalizing an Indo-Pacific grouping could see larger regional players, namely India but also Australia and New Zealand, counteract the weight ASEAN minnows carry when addressing regional concerns.
For Natalegawa, moving beyond mere geographical descriptions – a common criticism of the resurrected Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) – of what is one of the most culturally and politically diverse regions of the world is the first priority. “What is the geopolitical underpinning? What is the worldview Indonesia is trying to promote? You cannot speak of a need to have a cooperation without speaking of a transparent, free and inclusive Pacific.”
“Notwithstanding the current emphasis, I’m missing the geopolitical argument. In the past, I have tried to inject the notion of a dynamic equilibrium. My suggestion was for the Indo-Pacific to be 21st century-focused, rather than 20th century, and to jettison the Cold War mentality.”
Now enjoying retirement, Natalegawa is forthcoming about his previous hesitation at Western regional states, particularly Australia and New Zealand, taking part in forums such as the East Asia Summit. But those fears appear to have fallen by the wayside as he muses on the future of Indonesian leadership in the region and globally. ASEAN is, in a word, adrift, according to Natalegawa, giving the impression that while the bloc remains central to Indonesian foreign policy there is a desire amongst some to look further abroad to solve some of the region’s most pressing woes.
Much of this comes down to a domestic and global distrust in many ASEAN leaders as well as a failure to address regional problems. Natalegawa points specifically to the Rohingya crisis, which threatens to split ASEAN after a divisive showing at the United Nations saw just three ASEAN states vote in favor of an eventually passed resolution slamming Myanmar’s actions in the conflict.
How an Indo-Pacific grouping would avoid the flaws fundamental to ASEAN’s dysfunction is still to be ironed out, but for Natalegawa the past shortcomings of ASEAN and other smaller blocs is a great lesson for building a forward-thinking and modern grouping. The nature of power has changed dramatically in the 51 years since the launch of ASEAN and the “capacity to influence events and the wielders of powers are no longer just governments,” he notes. A new grouping with a strong understanding of the role nonstate actors play in cybersecurity, transnational threats, and a host of persistent global issues which did not exist back in 1967 is crucial to Southeast Asian nations maintaining an influence on the world stage.
Which isn’t to say ASEAN is without its merits, he is quick to note. When asked what advice he would give to Marsudi on dealing with ASEAN, he lays out a clear roadmap of where he would like to see Indonesian leadership head.
“Within ASEAN, Indonesia is objectively the largest country but to be able to lead sometimes less is more. We cannot behave in ASEAN like the largest, we have to earn trust to ensure policies are in everyone’s interests.”
“It is a great problem to have. It is not usual for a large country in a subregion to be asked by smaller countries for leadership. It is a quality and asset developed by Indonesia over many decades and is a currency we neglect at our peril.”
Marsudi, he says, is on the right track. She is demonstrably invested in ensuring ASEAN is an imperative of her leadership and is responding swiftly to fresh developments that he had not faced during his time.
“There’s different situations, circumstances, and challenges. What worked in the past may not be relevant now. National, regional, and global – we can manage all those hats, but how can we manage our national interest at the same time? In the past we have struck an equilibrium.”
But would spearheading yet another regional grouping be one hat too many for Indonesia? Not if it is part of a wider reformation of existing blocs, specifically ASEAN, Natalegawa says. A strong start would be a concerted effort to create regular and sustained conversation between ambassadors to ASEAN based in Jakarta, which he suggests would take place as a weekly meeting in which any manner of related issues can be debated and discussed. Summits could then be formalizations rather than the venue for these discussions.
“We don’t need clear delineation between organizations, even definitions of regions has been left ambiguous in many groupings,” Natalegawa says. “We need to make sure we are not recreating the wheel and have a clear idea of who is doing what and where. We must tolerate some degree of overlap and eventually market forces, so to speak, will determine who will survive.”
Missed opportunities to establish deep economic and political engagement with India are clearly a motivation for Natalegawa when dwelling on the Indo-Pacific concept. A global focus on China’s rise at the expense of India’s influence has been a misstep for most of the wider region, but it is felt particularly amongst some ASEAN members grappling to counterbalance China’s impact on Mekong region states and now the Philippines.
Natalegawa’s ideal Indo-Pacific would have ASEAN play a central role, an important factor when considering the huge range of countries which would be included, rather than elevating Indonesia or other member states specifically.
“I continue to believe that in this case less can be more. There is a temptation to bring everyone on board but in my view it has to be ASEAN-led. ASEAN has the means, thanks to the foresight of foreign policy makers and ASEAN through the East Asia Summit particularly must be the primary vehicle.”