Indonesian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ireland and the International Maritime Organization (IMO)
During the 34th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok in June, the regional group’s leaders officially endorsed and adopted the “ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific”. They agreed, in light of the ongoing strategic changes in the region, that ASEAN needs its own vision about the future of regional order, a vision that represents a distinct ASEAN view and voice.
They hope that the vision will reconcile the competing visions of regional order advocated by major powers. By adopting the Outlook, ASEAN evidently wants to remind itself, and send a simple message to extra-regional powers, that ASEAN centrality should never be forgotten. Indeed, one of ASEAN’s remarkable qualities since its inception in 1967 has been its ability to survive the power play among great powers.
Yet, as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, the strategic challenges facing ASEAN now are different from the past. Different challenges require different responses.
During the Cold War era, ASEAN (still five members at the time) believed that it could preserve regional peace and stability by trying to keep great power rivalries out of the region. The Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) is a clear example of this approach.
When the Cold War ended, a new strategic context compelled ASEAN to open up and embrace extra-regional powers as a strategy in maintaining peace and stability in the region. This is demonstrated by the proliferation of ASEAN-centered multilateral processes and platforms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Plus Three (APT), the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) and the East Asia Summit (EAS).
The short-lived unipolar moment allowed ASEAN to focus more on deeper institutionalization and the regional community-building project. ASEAN managed to have the ASEAN Charter and agreed on a blueprint to transform itself into an ASEAN Community.
Today, ASEAN finds itself in a completely new terrain. The world is undergoing profound changes. Scholars and policymakers start to talk about the world in disarray, disorder and even anarchy. We live in a turbulent world, where the old is being dismantled and the new is yet to emerge.
Faced with such strategic uncertainty, every nation is scrambling and struggling to find the most suitable place for itself in the emerging strategic environment, individually or collectively. Within that context, some of us in Indonesia have begun to worry about peace and stability in Southeast Asia, about the future of ASEAN, about the future of the entire East Asia, and more importantly about Indonesia’s place in the emerging regional order.
We know the geoeconomic and geopolitical center of gravity of the world is shifting from West to East. We already know China is fast becoming a great power, if it is not already. We also know the United States is trying to sustain its primacy in the world while dismantling the international order it helped build since 1945. Yet, the process of that strategic change is still unraveling, and the final outcome of that change remains to be seen.
Three developments, however, have emerged from that process of change. First, a great power game is returning to Southeast Asia. Second, the future of Southeast Asia is increasingly defined by how extra-regional powers interact with each other. And third, key extra-regional powers begin to formulate and promote their own vision of regional order.
The key questions before us in the region, therefore, are twofold: 1) Are we about to see the end of the ASEAN-centered regional order? 2) What are we going to do about it?
In principle, the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) is an attempt to provide answers to these questions. The AOIP recognizes, “it is in the interest of ASEAN to lead the shaping of their economic and security architecture” in order to address challenges stemming from changes in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.
In doing so, the Outlook promises that ASEAN will “continue to maintain its central role in the evolving regional architecture in Southeast Asia and its surrounding regions” and “continue being an honest broker within the strategic environment of competing interests”.
This is the key rationale behind Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific proposal to ASEAN since early 2018, starting here in this building when Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi gave a major policy speech on May 16, 2018, on the issue.
The AOIP, in this sense, constitutes a response to the growing challenges stemming from external pressures that could threaten ASEAN’s unity, undermine ASEAN’s relevance and corrode ASEAN’s centrality. And responding to external changes at critical times is something ASEAN has always been good at.
Seen in this light, the AOIP is a strategic necessity. ASEAN can no longer just sit and watch extra-regional powers actively shape the future of its own region. ASEAN must ensure that its two core interests — ASEAN centrality and strategic autonomy of the region — will be preserved, enhanced and reinforced. ASEAN hopes that the AOIP will provide the necessary platform to do that.
It is necessary to point out that the AOIP would not have been possible without Indonesia’s initiative and determination. Under the leadership and direct involvement of Retno, Indonesia managed to convince its regional partners that it is a strategic necessity for ASEAN to articulate its own vision on the future of regional order and architecture.
Indonesia hopes and expects AOIP to address strategic challenges in the region, and give impetus for greater regional cooperation. In strategic terms, it hopes the AOIP can serve as a platform through which rivalries among great powers can be mitigated and conflict prevented.
It also expects the AOIP to serve as an inclusive meeting place for the competing visions of regional order offered by great and regional players. And most importantly, it expects to maintain ASEAN’s relevance, uphold ASEAN’s centrality, preserve ASEAN’s unity and sustain Southeast Asia’s strategic autonomy.
The writer is the Indonesian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ireland and the International Maritime Organization. The article was based on his presentation at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Lecture Series on Regional Dynamics on Aug. 28.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.