Over the weekend, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) finally and officially publicly disclosed its outlook for the Indo-Pacific that has been under discussion. While officials have said that the document ought to be viewed as a work in progress, it is nonetheless worthy of examination as it spotlights the regional grouping’s continued efforts to advance its own vision of the concept amid heightened attention to it in recent years.
Though some accounts tend to view ASEAN’s attention to the Indo-Pacific as being a reaction to recent conversations, one can in fact trace the regional organization’s approach to the issue much further back depending on how it is defined. Process-wise, ardent ASEAN advocates continue to make the case that ASEAN has been a driver of the “Indo-Pacificization” of Asian regionalism over time to include the greater engagement of major powers, through mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit (EAS). More concretely, in terms of policy, Indonesia’s former foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, had also publicly raised the prospect of an Indo-Pacific Friendship and Cooperation Treaty in the 2010s, even though it never got off the ground in an ASEAN-wide context.
But while ASEAN’s relationship with the Indo-Pacific concept itself may date back much further, it is also true that the release of the U.S. free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy which continues to be developed, and the subsequent catalyzing of reactions from regional states such as India and Japan, has further intensified the regional grouping’s quest to advance its own vision of the concept and shape the regional conversation (which, it should be kept in mind, is distinct from the views of individual Southeast Asian states). This is due to a range of factors, some of them more historic, such as ASEAN’s conception of its role as being in the driver’s seat in regionalism and the suspicion of foreign powers seeking to dominate the agenda, and others more contemporary, such as growing nervousness about rising U.S.-China strategic competition and its effects on smaller states. In that vein, we have seen Southeast Asian states seek to shape their own vision since last year, with the convening of workshops and meetings.
Over the weekend, we finally witnessed the culmination of this initial process with the unveiling of what is officially termed the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). The brief, five-page, final document, which was released in conjunction with the ASEAN Summit held in Thailand during its chairmanship of the grouping, represents the first official and publicly disclosed version of ASEAN’s view on the Indo-Pacific concept. It is worthy of examination not just for what it says about the ASEAN’s view on the Indo-Pacific today, but what its approach reveals about the state of the regional grouping more generally and the potential for the advancement of the AOIP.
Content-wise, while the document builds on traditional principles ASEAN has espoused as well as previous statements on this subject, there are nonetheless some details that the AOIP discloses about the regional grouping’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. It succinctly summarizes the four elements of AOIP: the integration of the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions; the promotion of dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry; the advancement of development and prosperity of all; and the importance of the maritime domain in the regional architecture. It clearly situates the Outlook alongside other regional and international frameworks and organizations, be it Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) or the United Nations Sustainable Goals. And it enumerates the four functional areas through which ASEAN believes collaboration can be tangibly advanced: maritime cooperation; connectivity; sustainable development; and the economy.
Though it is still early days, the articulation of AOIP is not without promise. While the AOIP may be a short document that is missing details on several counts, officials familiar with the drafting process had said that the intent for its initial release was to quickly reaffirm the fact that ASEAN is still invested in having an important say in the region’s future, rather than being left out of the Indo-Pacific conversation. And while the AOIP is still a work in progress, its fleshing out of how the Indo-Pacific dovetails with ASEAN’s own initiatives, those of other regional and international players, and functional areas of priority, can at least potentially chart a path towards greater collaboration. The AOIP itself directly acknowledges the limits of this document by stating that this could help “generate momentum” for future initiatives, including “an appropriate ASEAN document” that can help concretize Indo-Pacific collaboration.
But at the same time the AOIP is also testament to the challenges ASEAN continues to face in advancing its own conception of the Indo-Pacific. The dithering of the regional grouping before issuing the AOIP, and the airing of grievances in public and debates over how and when it would be disclosed, is testament to deep divisions within ASEAN about how to deal with the Indo-Pacific concept. Those divisions are not unique to this issue – we have also witnessed this in ASEAN’s management of other critical issues, including on the South China Sea.
Those divisions are also the product of a challenging domestic, regional, and international context for many Southeast Asian states, including the lack of foreign policy activism in certain countries as well as intensifying major power competition in the external environment. Indeed, by any standard, the current environment is much more difficult to advance such a concept relative to when Natalegawa did so in the 2010s, much less playing catch up to a time when major powers are already well underway with their views on the Indo-Pacific. That also means that getting beyond the general language seen in the AOIP to a more robust ASEAN Indo-Pacific conception will likely prove a much more difficult task.
Nonetheless, given that very current domestic, regional, and international context, the stakes are also arguably higher than ever for ASEAN to overcome its internal divisions and fashion an Indo-Pacific approach that is viewed as credible not just within the organization, but among external partners as well. That will require not just adding ASEAN’s views to a conversation, but also clearly articulating how its much-prized centrality in the regional architecture can be leveraged to advance various conceptions by regional actors in a way not only advertises ASEAN’s value-add, but also speaks to their interests as well. Only then will ASEAN be truly living up to what the former and late ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan termed “centrality of substance” that moves beyond repeating its desire to remain in the driver’s seat of Asian regionalism.