The Jakarta Post
ASEAN has reaffirmed its central role in the vast Indo-Pacific region when its leaders endorsed at their summit in Bangkok in June their common vision of how they want the emerging region to develop under constantly changing power balances.
What is most impressive about the five-page ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific document is the speed at which the text was endorsed by all 10 member countries. It took less than one year and a half from the time of Indonesia’s announcement to push for a common ASEAN vision and 10 months from the time Indonesia submitted the concept paper and distributed it to members at the ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting in Singapore in August.
That success defies the notoriously slow ASEAN diplomacy, where all decisions must be by consensus. Many ASEAN initiatives in the past were bogged down by dissent from just one member. How Indonesia pulled it off and circumvented the “ASEAN Way” merits a doctoral research study.
When Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi launched her Indo-Pacific diplomacy in a speech in January 2018, skepticism abounded, because Indonesia challenged similar initiatives for a new regional architecture proposed separately or jointly by the United States, Japan, Australia and India. The four have even formed a club called “The Quad” to discuss common strategic interests.
China has evaded any discussion on the Indo-Pacific and until recently even avoided the term altogether, insisting on using the Old World view of defining the region as “Asia Pacific” for the obvious reason that it does not directly border on the Indian Ocean. Beijing also harbors suspicions that these Indo-Pacific initiatives were part of Washington’s policy of containing China’s rise.
Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative linking Asia and Europe through Central Asia, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, however, would compel China sooner or later to sit down and discuss the emerging Indo-Pacific, whether it liked it or not.
What makes the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific better than other initiatives is its inclusivity principle that ensures the new regional architecture would be inclusive and open to all. It puts emphasis on common interests, whereas the other initiatives emphasize shared values, making them look like exclusive clubs made up of liberal democracies to the exclusion of others.
Central to the ASEAN outlook is its centrality in the regional architecture, something that Japanese and Indian leaders in separate speeches have conceded even as they pushed for their own Indo-Pacific initiatives.
ASEAN is not proposing a new platform for the Indo-Pacific, at least not just yet. The last thing leaders in the region need is another summit or meeting on top of existing ones. Instead, ASEAN plans to bring the concept to the East Asia Summit, an annual gathering bringing leaders from 10 ASEAN countries together those of China, the US, Russia, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. They plan to meet in Bangkok in November.
Convincing the big powers will no doubt be more challenging, but don’t dismiss ASEAN. The group has pulled it off in the past, as reflected in the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum, an annual gathering of foreign ministers of ASEAN and all big powers to discuss regional and global security.
Fellow ASEAN members had doubts when Indonesia broached the Indo-Pacific initiative last year, questioning what strategic benefits they would get, since none but Indonesia borders on both the Indian and Pacific oceans. And there was behind-the-scenes pressure from big powers not to take up the cause, or least to stall it, and support their own initiatives instead.
It was not until Thailand took over the chairmanship in January that ASEAN began to discuss the outlook proposed by Indonesia more seriously. One country reportedly held back its endorsement, almost botching the whole initiative, until the last minute before the ASEAN leaders summit in June.
Indonesia, as one of only two countries straddling both oceans (the other one, Australia, is on the fringe), has its own national strategic interests in pushing for the Indo-Pacific regional architecture.
Under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Indonesia has declared its ambition to become a maritime power. The new Indo-Pacific world view, as opposed to the old Asia Pacific, fits nicely in its global maritime fulcrum concept, positioning itself as a power in both oceans.
Typically, rather than pushing the concept as an Indonesian initiative, Jakarta pushed it through ASEAN in keeping with its principle of ASEAN as the cornerstone of its foreign policy. Among her ASEAN colleagues, Minister Retno earned the nickname “Miss Indo-Pacific” for her persistence this past year.
The endorsement of the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific is a major diplomatic achievement for Indonesia, something that the nation somehow fails to appreciate; but the late Ali Alatas, Indonesia’s longtime foreign minister who had a big hand in helping ASEAN grow, would be proud of his disciples.
Most of all, the leaders’ endorsement shows that ASEAN unity and centrality go hand in hand.
Amidst signs that Southeast Asian countries are being pulled apart in the increasing hegemonic rivalry between China and the US, it is encouraging to see that, when it comes to the future wellbeing of the region, ASEAN can unite and push for their central role.
The writer is a senior editor of The Jakarta Post.