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ASEAN joins the Indo-Pacific conversation

The geographic vastness of the Indo-Pacific region brings to light the crucial role that sub-regional groupings can play in realising the AOIP’s stated areas of collaboration in the Indo-Pacific

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ASEAN, Pacific Alliance reaffirm commitment to enhance relations

After months of deliberation and hesitation, ASEAN finally contributed to the discussion on the evolving Indo-Pacific concept. The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) was officially released at the 34th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok at the end of June 2019.

The much-anticipated document provides an ASEAN narrative of the various versions of the Indo-Pacific concept articulated by the United States, India, Japan and others. This sets the stage for further dialogue on the specifics of Indo-Pacific cooperation in accordance with an ASEAN-centred regional architecture. The AOIP steers clear from adopting the US-driven Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) or approaches conceived by other big powers.

The AOIP envisages ASEAN centrality as the underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, with ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) providing platforms for dialogue and implementation of this cooperation.

The document also clarifies ASEAN’s perception of the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean not as contiguous territorial spaces, but rather as a closely integrated and inter-connected region. Connecting the connectivity initiatives already out there for the regional states with the existing Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025 (MPAC) will be one of the top priorities for ASEAN.

While officials emphasise that the document should be viewed as a work in progress, the release of the AOIP shows that ASEAN is willing to acknowledge inevitable changes in the regional security architecture and is determined to continue to shape the geopolitical narrative amid intensifying big-power rivalry in the region.

The AOIP represents the first formal and publicly disclosed document detailing ASEAN’s views on the Indo-Pacific concept. The absence of an ASEAN vision was conspicuous given that ASEAN lies in the centre of the Indo-Pacific and other major powers already released their visions for the region.

France unveiled its Indo-Pacific policy in May 2019, followed by the United States with its updated ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy Report’ coinciding with US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s speech at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue in June.

ASEAN’s cautious approach towards the Indo-Pacific concept was largely due to the ill-defined nature of the idea, which lacks clarity in its scope and process of implementation.

While ASEAN still needs to formulate a detailed plan for using its forums in their existing formats to promote Indo-Pacific cooperation, a critical point in the AOIP is the nod to furthering sub-regional cooperation. This is important because the AOIP does not otherwise intend to create new mechanisms or replace existing ones.

The geographic vastness of the Indo-Pacific region brings to light the crucial role that sub-regional groupings can play in realising the AOIP’s stated areas of collaboration in the Indo-Pacific (maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development and the economy).

The AOIP considers exploring potential synergies with sub-regional frameworks such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Mekong subregional cooperation. ASEAN must consider the specifics of collaborating with sub-regional groupings as it updates the AOIP going forward.

Changing geopolitical realities are resulting in renewed interest in the Bay of Bengal and BIMSTEC. With access to the Indian Ocean and the Himalayas, BIMSTEC is becoming the theatre of convergence and competition for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), India’s Act East policy and the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor.

Since BIMSTEC includes two ASEAN member states (Myanmar and Thailand) in its ranks, engaging the sub-regional grouping will better facilitate existing infrastructure projects. The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is still lagging behind deadlines — BIMSTEC can make way for closer cooperation in a region where the China-led BRI is rapidly changing the geostrategic landscape.

The United States is also looking to engage in the Bay of Bengal through its new security cooperation program, the Bay of Bengal Initiative. The Trump administration sought US$30 million from the US Congress to finance maritime and border security capacity for Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives.

ASEAN would also do well to make use of existing mechanisms within the Mekong subregional cooperation frameworks at a time when China and Japan are locked in a race to pave their influence in the Mekong.

Author: Nazia Hussain, RSIS

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The United States abandoned economic leadership in Asia four years ago.

Rather than promote and strengthen the multilateral institutions and frameworks that underpin Asia’s prosperity, the United States under President Trump began systematically undermining them: from the WTO, WHO and Paris Agreement, to military alliances with Japan and South Korea, bilateral trade ties and cooperation in regional forums.

The message that Asian policymakers received was crystal clear: Asia is too reliant on an increasingly unreliable America. The damage from the Trump presidency is likely, sadly, to be permanent.

While President Biden is a refreshing change, three things still weigh on the minds of Asian policymakers.

First, Asian policymakers recognise that Trump was not an accident. He was the product of long-standing deep structural challenges in the US economy and society.

Addressing those challenges will be a difficult, long-term proposition. The Democrats winning the White House, House of Representatives and Senate means Biden has more room to manoeuvre in addressing those challenges.

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Second, Biden is swamped with domestic problems. American presidents in the past have had to deal with race riots, pandemics, recessions, political polarisation and the alleged criminal acts of their predecessors before, but never has a president had to deal with all of them at once.

With so many problems at home, Asian policymakers fear Biden will be too preoccupied and have too little political capital to spend on foreign policy issues in the region.

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Biden has his work cut out winning over a sceptical Asia.

The reality is that both need each other: Asia needs the counterweight of America, and Biden needs Asia if he is to deliver on his foreign policy objectives. What can Biden do to instil confidence in a region still battered and bruised from four years of the Trump administration waywardness?

In our lead article this week, Adam Triggs suggests one answer: using Indonesia’s upcoming G20 host year in 2022 to strengthen the multilateral institutions that Asia relies upon and which underpin long-term US influence in the region. In turning its back on multilateral institutions, the United States surrendered one of the most powerful weapons in the US arsenal: the ability to shape global rules and institutions. The problem is that too many multilateral institutions are in desperate need of reform. As these institutions atrophy over time, so does US influence as a patchwork of competing institutions emerge.

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For the first time in more than 10 years, President Biden has a window of opportunity to fix this. With the White House and both houses of Congress in alignment, the United States can lead reform in these institutions and create new rules where they are lacking today.

‘Historically, successful reforms in global governance have required at least three things’, says Triggs: ‘leadership from the President of the United States, approval from the US Congress (at least when funding is required) and a quorum of major countries that support the change. For the first time in more than a decade, all three pieces of the puzzle…

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

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