The ASEAN annual summit in 2019 sets a milestone by signing the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) as this is the first document that highlights ASEAN’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. This document was adopted at Senior Officials Meeting on 23 June 2019, after negotiating for eighteen months. It is a five-page document, describing the meaning and role of ASEAN in the newly conceptualized region of Indo-Pacific.
AOIP establishes ASEAN and Southeast Asia as the central to Indo-Pacific, which includes the Indian Ocean region and the Asia Pacific. The establishment of the above three as one region gives a new definition to Indo-Pacific. As stated by C Raja Mohan, National University of Singapore, adaptation of this new definition has led to the starting of the new phase of geo-politics. He also pointed out that the document and its explanation of the newly defined geography of Indo-Pacific refute the notion that geographic concepts are constant. He mentions, “political geography changes depending on political circumstances.” Even Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Thailand’s Institute of Security and International Studies, considered this to be “a paradigmatic shift.”
Similarly, to them, even other academic and researcher appreciated and revered this document for being much need. Is this document worth the hype? How essential is AOIP for this regional organization?
Critique of the Document
As aforementioned AOIP clearly states the central role of Southeast Asia as a bridge between the Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific and reaffirms the formation new geographic notion of Indo-Pacific as a broader region. The document elaborates on the background and rationale for the need for ASEAN centred regional architect for Indo-Pacific at the beginning itself. Both the regions-Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific are dynamic due to ongoing geostrategic and political changes, southeast Asia being located in between acts as “conduit and portal” to these regions. This dynamism is also reflected in the newly formed bigger region of Indo-Pacific. These dynamic changes provide both opportunities and challenges. Hence, the requirement of ASEAN as an enhancer to maintain peace, stability, and economic development. This document’s objective was to “reinforce the ASEAN-centered regional architecture.” The four areas of cooperation highlighted in AOIP are maritime cooperation, connectivity, UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030, and economic and other possible areas of cooperation. The four areas chosen are justifiable given the fact that the new-described region of Indo-Pacific includes two Oceans that forms one of the biggest maritime commutes. The busiest strait of Malacca is part of this region. Economically, this region is thriving, comprises of several developing nations with rapidly growing GDP, explains the focus on UN SDG and economic cooperation.
The document may seem to be repetitive but successfully explains the objective and role of ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific region. Similarly, it is also understandable that the AOIP reads diplomatic, as ten members of ASEAN have different priority and requirement. The document needed to cater to all of their requirements. Additionally, as stated by ASEAN itself that it is a work in progress, therefore this document may seem to be much weaker in comparison to other documents released by the US, Australia, Japan, and India on the same subject. The AOIP has also been criticized for being lacking mechanism and strategies for implementing the ASEAN role, when in comparison to the previously mentioned Indo-pacific documents. In response to this criticism, it is essential to highlight the fact that the document, in the beginning, mentions the aim of the document is not highlighting mechanisms. It states “This outlook is not aimed at creating new mechanisms or replacing existing ones; rather, it is an Outlook intended to enhance ASEAN’s Community building process and to strengthen and give new momentum for existing ASEAN-led mechanisms to better face challenges and seize opportunities arising from the current and future regional and global environments. Moreover, Outlook is intended to be inclusive in terms of ideas and proposals.” Hence, AOIP as a first stepping stone for ASEAN in this arena should be revered and appreciated.
Role of AOIP: ASEAN and the Southeast Asia region
The introduction of this document has been timely given that the Free and Open-Pacific (FOIP) was proposed by Donald Trump in 2017 and was high time for ASEAN to assert its role and position related to the notion of Indo-Pacific. It was also significant given the ongoing trade war between the US, and China has impacted most of ASEAN members negatively (example Singapore) and positively (for example, Vietnam). It made two things clear to ASEAN; firstly, it was essential to balance the Chinese impact in the region along with the American one by being part of the vast region of Indo-Pacific. Secondly, the trade war could also be a promo to the more significant security threat lurking over the Southeast Asian region. Hence the need to assert its stand and re-establish its strength as a strong regional organization. The latter was needed as over the years, failure of ASEAN to take effective steps in the pertinent issues affecting the region such as South China Sea conflict, Rohingya Crisis, and others have been criticized. Hence, the success of AOIP can also be seen as an ASEAN face-saver.
However, it was untimely and late in comparison to other countries such as India, Japan, Australia and the US who have elaborated their Indo-Pacific vision and strategy in 2017 itself. This document was essential for ASEAN to reaffirm its role in this region and its intention to have a significant say in the future development of this region. For ASEAN members also this was much need. Especially Indonesia who have been loudest among others for voicing the need for an Indo-Pacific vision. Indonesia was first to propose the requirement of distinct ASEAN Indo-Pacific approach in 2018. They have been open about establishing themselves as a central power in this Indo-Pacific region. The ASEAN’s establishment of Southeast Asia as a center to the Indo-Pacific region will assist Indonesia to assert their role of being the primary player of this geostrategic region. Thus, it seems the AOIP was much need not only for ASEAN but also its members.
Aparupa Bhattacherjee is a PhD Scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS.