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.

ASEAN’s new vision for Indo-Pacific and why it matters?
ASEAN’s new vision for Indo-Pacific and why it matters?

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 article is part of the World Economic Forum’s Geostrategy platform

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