The ASEAN Summit 2022, held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, discussed a wide range of issues including the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, the escalating political situation in Myanmar as well as the issue of rising food and energy prices.[i]Amongst the key outcomes of the three day ASEAN Summit was both India and the US elevating their respective relationships with ASEAN to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). This follows the CSP that ASEAN had established with China and Australia in 2021. The ASEAN Summit also witnessed the signing of a free trade pact between Australia, ASEAN, and New Zealand.
A key issue that was prominently discussed at the ASEAN Summit was the escalating geopolitical rivalries and challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. This is a major cause of concern as it impacts the stability and growth in Southeast Asia. Indonesia which takes over the Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2023, its President Mr Jokowi at the Summit stated that the 10 country regional bloc must strive to become “a peaceful region and anchor for global stability...(and), consistently uphold international law and not be a proxy (for) any powers”.[ii] The growing strategic relevance of the Indo-Pacific which includes its significant role in building the economic and security architecture, has led ASEAN to relook at its approach and align with external partners for cooperation emerging out of common concerns.
Indo-Pacific becoming part of ASEAN Strategic Lexicon
ASEAN geographically lies at the centre of the Indo-Pacific region which has become more contested and crowded with increased risks of conflicts amongst the major powers. ASEAN has been engaging with several Indo-Pacific countries at bilateral, regional, and multilateral levels. In the beginning, given China’s sensitivity towards the Indo-Pacific; countries in Southeast Asia were polarised and reluctant to fully and officially endorse the concept. However, the evolving geopolitical challenges along with new security threats, prompted ASEAN to relook its approach towards the evolving Indo-Pacific architecture. Given that ASEAN engages with all major powers, it needed to adopt a more strategic approach to the new geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific.[iii] While the Indo-Pacific continues to get internalised as part of ASEAN’s strategic culture, there is a growing recognition within the ASEAN Member States (AMS) that this emerging architecture is here to stay.[iv]
To promote a rules-based regional order in the Indo-Pacific, the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) was adopted in June 2019. The AOIP provides a guide for ASEAN’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific region which promotes ASEAN Centrality and emphasises on ASEAN-led mechanisms to strengthen regional and sub-regional cooperation, which would contribute to the maintenance of peace, freedom, and prosperity. The AOIP provided a broad vision and ASEAN’s position on the Indo-Pacific- which in terms of geography makes two assertions; the first that ASEAN views the Indo-Pacific as the Asia-Pacific region plus the Indian Ocean Region. The second assertion is that the Indian Ocean Region and the Pacific Ocean region are not perceived by ASEAN as being merely contiguous territorial spaces but as a closely integrated and interconnected region, with ASEAN playing a central and strategic role.[v] Further, in order to realise the ASEAN vision on the Indo-Pacific, the AOIP focussed on four priority areas; maritime cooperation; connectivity; UN SDG 2030; and economic and other areas of cooperation.[vi]
ASEAN’s Emerging Perspective on the Indo-Pacific
The Indo-Pacific concept and its vision to ensure a safe and secure maritime space through an inclusive and multilateral approach are shared by both the AMS and the extra-regional powers. This has been well articulated in the official documents of the individual countries such as national security strategies, defence white papers, foreign policy, maritime security strategies and other official documents. A common perspective with respect to the evolving Indo-Pacific architecture is ASEAN centrality which continues to resonate with the countries in the region. For India, the centrality of ASEAN stems not only from its Look and Act East policies, but it is also integral to its Indo-Pacific vision of regional peace and prosperity. The joint statement on ASEAN-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership issued on November 12, 2022, reiterated support for ASEAN centrality in the evolving regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific, which would be critical to regional peace, security, and prosperity.[vii] In this regard the Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative (IPOI) which was earlier announced in 2019 by the Indian Prime Minister Modi at the 14th East Asia Summit aims at building cooperation through consensus in the light of emerging differences and challenges in the Indo-Pacific. The IPOI identifies seven basic facets of maritime cooperation and collaboration that shares complementarities with the AOIP’s broad areas of cooperation.[viii] The ASEAN-India Joint Statement on Cooperation on the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific for Peace, Stability, and Prosperity in the Region, adopted at the 18th ASEAN-India Summit on October 28, 2021, noted that both the AOIP and IPOI “..share relevant fundamental principles in promoting peace and cooperation..”.[ix] This was stated in the Joint Statement on ASEAN-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership adopted on November 12, 2022.[x]
The United States, which also elevated its Strategic Partnership with ASEAN to the level of a CSP, supports its centrality in the evolving Indo-Pacific construct.[xi] Within the broader US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, there are ‘ten core lines of efforts’ as part of its Indo-Pacific Action Plan.[xii] One of which is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) launched in 2022. Seven of the AMS have joined the IPEF which helps strengthen the US economic ties with Southeast Asia while contributing to a broadly shared peaceful Indo-Pacific strategy.
While amongst the ASEAN countries there still remains a varying degree of commitment to the Indo-Pacific, the region is at the centre of an emerging and complex architecture. The region is under challenge as a consequence of the nature of security threats expanding from territorial conflicts to issues of food security, health, and climate change. ASEAN also acknowledges that a stable Indo-Pacific would be of vital importance to global peace, security, and prosperity. This has played a role in pushing ASEAN towards a collective effort in establishing the AOIP. Therefore, the AOIP envisioned the central and strategic role of the regional bloc for promoting cooperation instead of rivalry, which will lead to development and prosperity for all.[xiii]
One of the top priorities for the ASEAN leaders is to operationalise the AOIP, as a consequence of the global security landscape that has changed dramatically.[xiv] At the 40th ASEAN Summit held on November 11, 2022, the Indo-Pacific gained prominence with the Leaders’ declaration on mainstreaming four priority areas of AOIP. The discussions in ASEAN on further mainstreaming cooperation under the AOIP aims at increasing constructive engagement with external partners. This would strengthen ASEAN centrality which would be fundamental in promoting openness, transparency, inclusivity, and a rules-based framework.[xv] Therefore, the Leaders’ declaration is significant as it not only puts Indo-Pacific on the centre stage, but also recognises its reality within the regional-bloc.
While ASEAN has accepted the geographical space under the Indo-Pacific, it has retained its interpretation which is; two continents as one, with ASEAN at the centre. The AOIP was a significant step in this regard as it not only recognised the vast geographical region but it also reasserted ASEAN’s centrality and neutrality in the emerging regional architecture. In light of the growing divergences in the Indo-Pacific, the role of ASEAN would be pivotal through its role in engaging with all of the major powers. Further, the complex challenges confronting the Indo-Pacific region in terms of economy, security, and the environment; ASEAN-led mechanisms would serve as useful platforms for dialogue and cooperation.
*Dr Temjenmeren Ao is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal.
[i] Philip Heijmans, “Key Takeaways from ASEAN Meeting before Xo-Biden Summit at G-20”, Bloomberg, November 13, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-11-13/key-takeaways-from-asean-meeting-before-xi-biden-summit-at-g-20?leadSource=uverify%20wall, Accessed on November 15, 2022.
[ii]Gabriel Dominguez, “Intensifying geopolitical rivalries dominate ASEAN summits”, The Japan Times, November 14, 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/11/14/asia-pacific/politics-diplomacy-asia-pacific/asean-china-us-japan-analysis/, Accessed on November 15, 2022.
[iii]Amitav Acharya, “ASEAN and the new geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific”, East Asia Forum, December 29, 2021, https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2021/12/29/asean-and-the-new-geopolitics-of-the-indo-pacific/, Accessed on November 15, 2022.
[iv]Hoang Thi Ha, “ASEAN Navigates between Indo-Pacific Polemics and Potential”, ISEAS Perspective 2021/49, April 20, 2021, https://www.iseas.edu.sg/articles-commentaries/iseas-perspective/2021-49-asean-navigates-between-indo-pacific-polemics-and-potentials-by-hoang-thi-ha/, Accessed on November 14, 2022.
[v]“ASEAN-India Development and Cooperation Report 2021: Avenues for Cooperation in Indo-Pacific”, ASEAN-India Centre (AIC)- Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), New Delhi, 2020.
[vi]“ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”, ASEAN, June 2019, https://asean.org/asean2020/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/ASEAN-Outlook-on-the-Indo-Pacific_FINAL_22062019.pdf, Accessed on November 14, 2022.
[vii]“Joint Statement on ASEAN-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”, ASEAN, November 12, 2022, https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Joint-Statement-on-ASEAN-India-CSP-final.pdf, Accessed on November 14, 2022.
[viii]Pradeep Chauhan, Prabir De, Sarabjeet Singh Parmar, and DurairajKumarasamy, “Indo_pacific Cooperation: AOIP and IPOI”, AIC Working Paper, No 3, 2020, http://aic.ris.org.in/sites/default/files/Publication%20File/AIC%20Working%20Paper%20October%202020.pdf., Accessed on November 14, 2022.
[ix] “ASEAN-India Joint Statement on Cooperation on the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific for Peace, Stability, and Prosperity in the Region”, ASEAN, October 28, 2021, https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/71.-ASEAN-India-Joint-Statement-on-Cooperation-on-the-ASEAN-Outlook-on-the-Indo-Pacific-for-Peace-Stability-and-Prosperity-in-the-Region-Final.pdf, Accessed on November 18, 2022.
[x] “Joint Statement on ASEAN-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”, ASEAN, November 12, 2022, https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Joint-Statement-on-ASEAN-India-CSP-final.pdf, Accessed on November 18, 2022.
[xi]“ASEAN-U.S. Leaders’ Statement on the Establishment of the ASEAN-U.S. Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”, ASEAN, November 12, 2022, https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/ASEAN-US-Leaders-Statement-on-CSP-final-1.pdf, Accessed on November 14, 2022.
[xii]“Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States”, The White House, February 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/U.S.-Indo-Pacific-Strategy.pdf, Accessed on November 17, 2022.
[xiii]“ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”, ASEAN, June 2019, https://asean.org/asean2020/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/ASEAN-Outlook-on-the-Indo-Pacific_FINAL_22062019.pdf, Accessed on November 15, 2022.
[xiv]Kavi Chongkittavorm, “It’s time to mainstream the AOIP”, Bangkok Post, November 1, 2022, https://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/2427000/its-time-to-mainstream-the-aoip, Accessed on November 15, 2022.
[xv]“ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on Mainstreaming Four Priority Areas of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific Within ASEAN-led Mechanisms”, ASEAN, November 11, 2022, https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/25-ASEAN-Leaders-Declaration-on-Mainstreaming-Four-Priority-Areas-of-the-ASEAN-Outlook-on-the-Indo-Pacific-within-ASEAN-led-Mechanisms.pdf, Accessed on NOVEMBER 14, 2022.