For more than 50 years, ASEAN has underpinned peaceful cooperation between its Southeast Asian member states. The ASEAN Charter’s principles of amity, dialogue and consensus have encouraged regional stability, economic integration and development. As such, ASEAN nations such as Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam have been able to prosper and add economic weight to an already dynamic region.
Further, ASEAN has distinctively sat at the center of the wider region’s architecture, convening diplomatic arrangements and the meetings of strategic forums. ASEAN’s habits of dialogue have ensured that every year, the leaders and senior ministers of regional powers both large and small gather for a frank discussion on current issues.
As the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus have grown in stature, so has the significance of ASEAN’s convenorship in facilitating the common understanding required to address regional challenges.
However, as analysis of what constitutes “the region” has transformed over recent years, so have questions arisen about the certainty of ASEAN centrality and the efficacy of ASEAN processes. Since 2013 a number of countries, including Australia and Japan, have formally adopted the vision of an “Indo-Pacific” regional construct.
In part, the Indo-Pacific construct is an elegant extension of the Asia-Pacific construct. As India and Indonesia rise, the Indo-Pacific more appropriately recognizes their growing significance in a broader regional framework, along with China, Japan, the United States, Australia and other powers in Asia. For some, the Indo-Pacific encapsulates the east coast of emerging Africa.
However, in a changing world increasingly characterized by contestation and competition, even revised regional constructs can cause uncertainty. This is evident within ASEAN, who as a consensus-driven body is yet to form a common position on the Indo-Pacific. It has perhaps been unhelpful towards this cause that the Indo-Pacific construct has been conflated by some across the region with determinedly narrower entities, such as the purely dialogue-focused arrangement of the “Quad”. This has led to some consternation as to what the Indo-Pacific is, what it represents, and what it means for ASEAN.
For Australia, the Indo-Pacific is simply a concept to best understand and frame the geoeconomic and geopolitical forces shaping the region; it is not a strategy or institution in itself. Significantly, the view from Australia is one looking north to an Indo-Pacific that has ASEAN unambiguously at its center.
As economic currents flow east and west across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, increasingly it is the rising countries of Indonesia and Vietnam that are driving this ASEAN-centered confluence. As strategic currents in the Indo-Pacific shift south and west from North Asia to India and Indonesia, the region’s strategic center of gravity is drawn to ASEAN.
In a recent piece in The Jakarta Post, Indonesian scholar Dino Patti Djalal called for ASEAN to “take the lead on the Indo-Pacific”, and work to ensure ASEAN retains its central role amid the growing complexity of regional relationships. Djalal, a former ambassador to the US, argued that an ASEAN-adopted and ASEAN-led Indo-Pacific understanding will facilitate more inclusive regional processes, and more effective regional diplomacy.
This is sound advocacy — only an ASEAN-adopted and ASEAN-centered Indo-Pacific construct will enable nations to develop a common understanding of new regional challenges, and provide the necessary diplomatic mechanisms to discuss and deal with these challenges.
Many countries recognize this and are actively advancing an Indo-Pacific construct that is underpinned by ASEAN centrality. Delivering his first public address in late March as Japan’s new Ambassador to Australia Reiichiro Takahashi told a Perth Conference on Australia-Japan-ASEAN relations that Japan’s Indo-Pacific vision is founded on the centrality and unity of ASEAN. Ambassador Takahashi declared, “ASEAN, sitting between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, takes center stage in any initiative to bolster regional security and stability.”
Also addressing the conference was Philip Green, Australia’s first assistant secretary for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s new US and Indo-Pacific Strategy Division. Green advocated for an Indo-Pacific, “where ASEAN and the ASEAN-centered regional architecture maintains its central role and helps set the rules and norms for behavior in the region.”
Most importantly, for an ASEAN-centered Indo-Pacific construct to prevail it must be recognized and embraced by ASEAN itself. Recent diplomatic initiatives are showing positive signs. The March High Level Dialogue on Indo-Pacific Cooperation, convened by Indonesia in Jakarta, focused on enhancing regional cooperation initiatives across the breadth of a shared Indo-Pacific. At the Perth forum later that week, Indonesia’s role in advancing an ASEAN-led Indo-Pacific vision was praised by many, including Ambassador Takahashi.
Whilst accepting each nation has its own geostrategic outlook, a shared understanding of the Indo-Pacific will be essential in managing the challenges arising in the most dynamic and congested part of the world. To advance this shared understanding, ASEAN leadership and region-wide recognition of ASEAN-led processes is pivotal. With ASEAN firming at the geographic, diplomatic and strategic center of the Indo-Pacific, the prospects of upholding the principles that have enabled decades of peaceful regional development are bright.
The writer is a research officer at the Perth USAsia Center, based at the University of Western Australia.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.