The ten member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has adopted the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ after more than a year of negotiations in the recently concluded (20th to 23rd June 2019) ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) held in Bangkok, Thailand.

The deliberations on the need for the ASEAN to evolve a unified vision and strategy for the Indo-Pacific began after US President Trump proposed the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy during his Asia tour in 2017 and at the 2017 APEC Summit in Vietnam. Countries like Australia, France, India and Japan had also come up with their own individual visions and strategies for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and therefore some countries in the ASEAN like Indonesia and Thailand did not want the Southeast region to be sidelined and left out of this new geopolitical game.

The main initiative for drafting the ASEAN vision of the Indo-Pacific was taken by Indonesia. It proposed a distinct ASEAN Indo-Pacific approach at a foreign ministers’ retreat in January 2018 and has led the discussion since then. Indonesia taking the lead in this effort can be for many factors, firstly the current Indonesian government has openly expressed its goal for Indonesia to evolve as a primary power from its current status as a middle power in the geostrategic theatre of the Indo-Pacific.

Secondly, some scholars, like Evan Laksmana of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Jakarta has mentioned that Indonesia might have been uncomfortable with existing Indo-Pacific visions proposed by regional powers and wished to offer an alternative ASEAN-centric vision instead. Indonesia did not want to join the bandwagon of either America’s FOIP or China’ Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Given Indonesia’s image of being the ‘primus inter pares’ in the regional grouping, this initiative of coming up with an ASEAN vision of the Indo-Pacific would help in elevating Indonesia’s image in the international fora as well as among the primary players in the Indo-Pacific like India, the U.S., Australia and Japan, who have for long championed for the archipelagic nation to play a greater role in the Indian Ocean region. This effort of Indonesia would also allay the fear of the international community that the ASEAN’s importance in the country’s foreign policy calculus has been relegated now; given that the Indian Ocean and the broader Indo-Pacific have become the primary areas of interest for Indonesia.

Strategic location

For the other member countries there was the desire to take full advantage of Southeast Asia's strategic location which is in the heart of the Indo-Pacific region. The primary push for finally concluding the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’, even after the recent news of Singapore’s demand to conduct further meetings and discussions before the final adoption of this document came with the growing US-China trade war.

This trade war has been negatively affecting the economies of many Southeast Asian countries, as is evident by Singapore’s slowing economic growth. Additionally, the regional countries are being forced to take sides in this economic tug-of-war. This was clear from Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) statement in the Jakarta Post, “the outlook was increasingly relevant to the world's developments, as the trade war between the U.S. and China had not shown any signs of reconcilement and as there was a concern that the trade war is growing into a multi-front war that could have an impact on the security and stability of the region.”

The centrality of the ASEAN has been emphasized amidst the geopolitical shifts that this region is encountering, like the ongoing tussle between the US and China

This document finally outlines the organization’s concept and strategy of the Indo-Pacific, in which the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions have been regarded as the most dynamic expanse and centre of economic growth.

The centrality of the ASEAN has been emphasized amidst the geopolitical shifts that this region is encountering like the ongoing tussle between the US and China. By ASEAN Centrality, the ‘Outlook’ denotes that the grouping wants to maintain its central role in the evolving regional architecture in Southeast Asia and its surrounding regions.

The aim is not to create 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 such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), as platforms for dialogue and implementation of the Indo–Pacific cooperation.

Rules-based order

Besides this, the document impinges upon a rules-based order anchored upon international law, openness, transparency, inclusivity and commitment to advancing economic engagement in the region. In this regard four areas of cooperation- maritime cooperation; connectivity; UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030; and economic development have been put forward for engaging with other countries in the Indo-Pacific.

While the intensifying U.S.-China trade war may have been the main push factor for the adoption of the ‘ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific’, in the document, according to scholars like Ibrahim Almutaqqi of the Habibie Centre in Jakarta, there is hardly any mention of the ongoing US-China trade war or even the other strategic challenges that the region is facing which compelled ASEAN to adopt its own Indo-Pacific outlook.

The document also does not provide some measures by which the ASEAN will be able to navigate these strategic challenges. Though it has been pointed out in the key elements or principles of the Indo-Pacific outlook that a rules based order should be maintained and the Indo-Pacific region should be looking at achieving “dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry”, unlike the policy papers and the strategic documents of other countries like the U.S., Australia and also Japan where the threats and challenges have been clearly outlined, the ASEAN document chose to take the safer or the diplomatic route.

This will be a positive factor in boosting India-ASEAN ties. As PM Modi’s 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue keynote speech reflected, India too has taken a more subtle attitude towards China and a diplomatic stance in pointing out the “China threat” in global platforms. Nonetheless, issues like the U.S.-China economic turf and the need for a quick conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), the South China Sea dispute (the need for a quick conclusion of the Code of Conduct) and the recent skirmish between the Filipinos and the Chinese in the South China Sea were discussed in the meeting.

How will China respond?

What needs to be seen now is how China will respond to the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, given its reservations on the use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’. Now, with ASEAN also comfortably using the Indo-Pacific terminology, whether this will have an effect on the Chinese attitude when it comes to the ongoing deliberations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, again only time can say. Given the fact that the ‘Chinese threat’ has not been mentioned outright in the document, might probably not irk the Chinese sentiments to a great extent.

The division within the ASEAN is quite apparent now given the failed attempts in coming to agreements on several issues. Therefore, given the differing opinions and interpretations of the member countries on the Indo-Pacific, South China Sea issue as well as relations with the US and China, it is praiseworthy that an ASEAN statement on the Indo-Pacific has been released after eighteen months of deliberations and negotiations.

This document can be seen as the first step in the evolution of an ASEAN concept of the Indo-Pacific and now more discussions on the Indo-Pacific can be expected to take place in future ASEAN meetings and mostly on the platform of the EAS.

Indian support

The document does lay out areas of cooperation to engage with other like-minded players in the region. Given that India also champions the need for a free, open, inclusive, rules-based Indo-Pacific, it has warmly welcomed the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

There are several areas where India can work with ASEAN for enhancing cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. There has been mention of exploring potential synergies with sub-regional frameworks, such as, IORA, BIMSTEC, BIMP-EAGA, Mekong sub-regional cooperation frameworks. Thereby considering the importance being given by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Bay of Bengal (BOB) and the BIMSTEC, it provides an opportunity for India to invite countries like Indonesia, Singapore who are also Bay of Bengal littorals to be a part of BIMSTEC and work alongside India for greater cooperation, connectivity and security in the BOB.

For instance, India can use the Sabang port in Sumatra as a medium of connectivity with Indonesia in the BOB. Maritime cooperation and connectivity are other areas of cooperation where India can work with the ASEAN countries.

The increasing integration and interconnection among Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean countries require investments and efforts to build connectivity infrastructures, including physical, institutional and people-to-people linkages. PM Modi’s Sagarmala project, the Trilateral Highway and its extension to CLV (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam), PM Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) can complement and support the existing Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025.

ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific outlook; An Analysis, Premesha Saha, the Observer Research Foundation