The organization (ASEAN), which celebrated its fifty years of existence in 2017, is now facing the major debate about its relevance with the onslaught of the new narrative which is emerging in the form of Indo-Pacific.
In August 2018 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers discussed ways to provide an institutional policy position with regard to ‘Indo-Pacific’. It is facing major challenge from the geo-political imagination which is popularly known as ‘Indo-Pacific’. In the final communique alluding to the Indo-Pacic, ASEAN Foreign ministers buttressed the need for ASEAN centrality for an ‘open, inclusive regional architecture’ along with ‘rules based and transparent order’. The major challenge for ASEAN as an institution is to remain relevant while collaborating with major dialogue partners so as to have constructive and participative role.
ASEAN was formed in 1967 to contain the scourge of communist onslaught meant to create an institution which can address problems faced by its member countries in terms of nation building, economic development and creating an understanding among the countries of Southeast Asia. The organization which celebrated its fifty years of existence in 2017, is now facing the major debate about its relevance with the onslaught of the new narrative which is emerging in the form of Indo-pacific. Acknowledging the emergence of a new region, ASEAN referred to it in its 2013 Communique, and outlined the fact that new formulations and geostrategic imaginations would help in expanding ASEAN’s influence across the region. However, the genesis of the ASEAN versus Indo-Pacific debate could have been addressed as in the case of Asia-Pacic when Asia-Pacic Economic Cooperation(APEC) by default included 7 ASEAN members and it subtly undermined ASEAN centrality. Given the fact that APEC has 21 members from Asia and Pacific rim therefore issues covered the larger geographical surface rather than East Asia only.
The question has been raised whether Quad and the major dialogue partners- India, Japan, Australia and US would undermine ASEAN relevance in the new defence and strategic narrative. ASEAN which has also amended its self in terms of its Charter and also more debate about the consensus making, accommodated growing demands of democracy, participative decentralized governance and has tried to keep the group together. However, ASEAN as an organization in its basic fundamentals have made it very clear that it would not interfere in the internal matters of any of its member nations and also would take a consensus building approach. This template has failed on two counts. Firstly, it was not able to address the issue of Rohingyas which has been in the past major critical issue among the ASEAN member nations which have professed their religious allegiance more than the basic fundamentals of existence. The critical stance undertaken by Malaysia and Indonesia on persecution of Rohingyas by Myanmar’s army were a testimony to it. Secondly, under the Chinese pressure institutional consensus is under stress and some deft back room Chinese diplomacy forced ASEAN to constrain itself in condemning China.
China’s role as a responsible dialogue partner has been under regional scrutiny for its aggressive moves and adamant behavior despite the PCA ruling in favour of Philippines which came in July 2016. Further, the discourse has resonated when many scholars have proposed that Indo-Pacic could have been named as East Asian Region when technically the area of coverage of East Asia and Indo-Pacic superimpose on each other. Nevertheless, Indo-Pacic has certain exclusions such as China while selective inclusion is preferred. China was excluded, and US strategic partners and allies were the preferred choices. ASEAN was abandoned at the planning stages as there was no reference to ASEAN’s role. However, barring occasional reverberations from the leaders of dialogue partner countries, ASEAN is left to fend for itself.
The reasons for this been the fact that ASEAN member countries have started projecting their own preferences. While Singapore has out rightly rejected the geo-political construct of Indo-Pacific but Indonesia at one time when Marty Natalegawa was foreign minister went as far as proposing an Indo-Pacic treaty. Vietnam and Philippines have welcome the geo-political construct but have their versions of the story. Vietnam has welcomed the Indo-Pacific construct albeit without any set preferences regarding inclusion or exclusion of China but the Philippines has outlined its priority for ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. The Philippines acknowledges US importance in Freedom Of Navigation Operations (FONOPS).
The tussle between Chinese proposed One Belt One Road(OBOR) and the US backed Indo-Pacific have become more pronounced. With China working on its Maritime Silk Road involving ASEAN members such as Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia, the strategic struggle is going to get more intense. PM Modi in his Shangri-La dialogue speech proposed that Indo-Pacific be more inclusive and can even accommodate China. The most important challenge is to the terms of engagement and the involvement of China is yet to be decided and how US-China relationship shapes up in future would be a major instrument of accession to the Indo-pacific construct. While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had recently expressed willingness to join OBOR with certain reservations but it needs to be seen how Washington recalibrates its regional strategy given the fact that Beijing consensus has become a looming future.
The debate with regard to ASEAN and Indo-Pacific need further refinement but the issue remains that whether East Asian Area including China could have galvanized more subscription instead of Indo-Pacific. ASEAN safely plays the brinkmanship game with China but the institutional bargaining chip had eroded to a large extent.
*Dr. Jha is senior faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), O P Jindal Global University and teaches international security