Features | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Great Expectations: ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific Concept

As ASEAN gets closer to finally releasing its vision for the Indo-Pacific, its role in the region hangs in the balance.

By Sophie Boisseau du Rocher for
Great Expectations: ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific Concept

ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh walk in front of flags as he attends the opening ceremony of the 49th Meeting of the ASEAN Economic Ministers and Related Meetings in Manila, Philippines on Sept. 7, 2017.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

After France unveiled the latest version of its policy in the Indo-Pacific (“France and security in the Indo-Pacific”) in May 2019, and after the United States published its updated “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” in June 2019, ASEAN is next in line in terms of new articulations of an ongoing concept that has been under development. At the 34th ASEAN summit to be held in Bangkok on June 23, member-states are expected to endorse an “ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook.”

It’s a long-awaited document as ASEAN is, among all stake-holders, the only one not to have yet to formally express its vision on this emerging – and still under discussion – concept. The single comment ASEAN has made until now is to insist that the coming scheme must respect ASEAN centrality.

Because the concept is obviously a major concern for the future of ASEAN, located as it is at the very center of the Indo-Pacific, the Association has deliberately taken its time to elaborate an answer, to avoid being tied into any logic or undertakings it doesn’t approve. But that is not the only reason for the delay. The diverse perceptions among the member-states on the geographical scope and the goals and ambitions of the Indo-Pacific construct (for example, Singapore has yet to endorse the concept paper agreed to by senior officials in Chiang Rai last March) reflect simultaneously the limits of ASEAN’s influence, its complex positioning in the new power configuration, and the risks for serious misunderstanding with its traditional partners.

The limits of the exercise are self-constraining: as ASEAN demands consideration for its self-proclaimed centrality, expectations from external partners are rising together with doubt over ASEAN’s capacity to give more substance to the Indo-Pacific concept. For sure, the Association wants to capitalize on its location — call it a bridge, a gateway, or a crossroads, where the “freeness” and “openness” of the Indo-Pacific will be tested. ASEAN’s Master Plan on Connectivity might be opportunely boosted. But ASEAN centrality is not about being located at the center of this single geostrategic theater, an evident position after a glance on a map. In ASEAN parlance, being at the center has many meanings and connotations, from being the hub of regionalization to setting the agenda or the rules for the broader region.

If all stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific recognize the added-value of ASEAN as an appropriate regional architecture for Southeast Asian States, if they do agree on its broad goals of promoting cooperation and lessening tensions (who could be against this?), they are still — at best — skeptical with regards to the grouping’s true efficiency. For sure, tensions have not degenerated into open conflicts and the use of force has been largely avoided, but it has been at a price of either diluting some recriminations or reducing ASEAN’s credentials. ASEAN’s so-called flexibility is the best communication tool to turn a weakness (its diversity in all forms) into a strength without addressing the key issue of performance. The Indo-Pacific Outlook might be the ultimate avatar — or extension — of this diplomatic community, as a never-ending quest for recognition.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

For the last 20 years, ASEAN has tried to ASEAN-ize not only the East Asian regional order but also the great powers in their own interactions, as Jurgen Haacke has rightly observed. However, its success has been limited. In procrastinating and postponing core questions, ASEAN also contributed to making solutions more difficult and uncertain. Indeed, power configuration today in the region is governed by trials of strength and realpolitik with the potential to undermine “ASEAN’s ecosystem of peace, stability, and prosperity.”

Questioning ASEAN’s responsible and adequate leadership is therefore a key issue for the Indo-Pacific Community. Are the five principles endorsed at the 33rd ASEAN summit in Singapore in November 2018, namely openness, transparency, rules-based order, centrality, and inclusivity being taken for granted to meet the expectations and coming challenges ? To be considered as a legitimate leader in the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN’s demonstration might need to be more convincing than the current negotiations for a Code of Conduct with China suggest. Indonesia, in the driving seat for drafting this ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook, must evaluate the risk of ASEAN’s narrative’s trap: ASEAN diplomatic slowness might not only prove inappropriate for engineering a new dynamic in the Indo-Pacific, but also counterproductive since it leaves the ground open for the most powerful and determined.

Some experts argue that the current power configuration and the underlying or explicit tensions make ASEAN’s centrality and the ASEAN Way even more precious. This remains to be demonstrated. If ASEAN can capitalize on its “high-betweenness,” as Mely Caballero-Anthony defined it, the vagueness of the term might distort its role and exceed its true impact. Off the record, many diplomats, including within Southeast Asia, keep complaining about the low performance and limits of regional mechanisms. They feel uncomfortable with the stalemate member-states produce in echoing ASEAN centrality as much as they can without giving the Association the resources and attention this centrality would imply.

This longstanding — yet never addressed — ambivalence not only has the potential to derail what remains until now a fragile and reversible process in the Indo-Pacific, but it might become counterproductive in distorting ASEAN’s real influence while simultaneously increasing the maneuvering room for great powers. It might also reach the point where there is a common position by China and the United States to preserve ASEAN centrality as a façade without respecting its supposed importance. Indonesia and its fellow-members will have to play their cards carefully to defend their own perceptions and practices while avoiding creating a dilemma for the future Indo-Pacific.

Last but not least, ASEAN is now insisting on a “rules-based order,” not to be confused with the rule of law. This deviation might prove to become the main divider between ASEAN and all major Indo-Pacific stakeholders, with the exception of China. For obvious reasons, Beijing supports the same option, arguing that international law is not appropriate to solve regional problems, which should be managed through regional mechanisms with regional characteristics. General Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, echoed ASEAN’s perception and defended the vision of an alternative regional order at the latest Shangri-La Dialogue.

Another crucial question is on the table: does ASEAN shift towards a rules-based order because of China’s pressure to find a settlement in the South China Sea, or does China share ASEAN’s practices because they do not hurt its interests? In either case, ASEAN’s centrality is challenged, as is the future of the Indo-Pacific Community.

Sophie Boisseau du Rocher is an associate research fellow at the Center for Asian Studies, IFRI (Paris).