Asean leaders have adopted the Indo Pacific Outlook at the 34th Asean Summit in Bangkok this month to show their unity and centrality to claim Asean leadership and ownership in shaping regional architecture.
Asean has played a critical role in maintaining peace and security in Southeast Asia, especially after the end of the Cold War when all ten Southeast Asian countries came together to forge their common vision to realize a community under three pillars, namely political security, economic and socio-cultural pillars.
It needs to be noted that while some countries had enjoyed the US-led security mechanism in the Indo-Pacific after the Second World War, some suffered from the US’s military intervention in Indochina. Cambodia and Vietnam suffered the most from the Cold War.
Only until 1998 that Cambodia could enjoy total peace. It has been 21 years now. In terms of nation-building, Cambodia is a young modern state thriving to develop its own model of governance and development based on its own past experiences, historical and cultural values, and other national conditions.
Asean, the product of the Cold War, has become the most reliable regional institution in the world after the European Union. The success of Asean depends very much on the political will and commitment of each Asean member state. Asean itself will define its own future and destiny, obviously not the major powers.
Amidst rising geopolitical competition especially between the US and China, Asean is compelled to stay united and look forward and outward. Maintaining and enhancing an open, inclusive, and rules-based Asean-led multilateralisms is the common interest of all Asean member states as well as the cornerstone of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific.
Recently there are attempts by some countries to create a geopolitical divide and fault line in the region for their own selfish interests at the expense of the Asean centrality. This is a threat and danger to the future of Asean and the whole region. Hence, Asean under the leadership of Indonesia started to formulate its own version of the Indo Pacific with the aim to ensure that Asean stay relevant and lead regional mechanisms.
There are four objectives under the Asean’s Indo Pacific Outlook. First, offering an outlook to guide cooperation in the region. Second, helping to promote an enabling environment for peace, stability and prosperity in the region in addressing common challenges, upholding the rules-based regional architecture, and promoting closer economic cooperation, and thus strengthen confidence and trust.
Third, enhancing Asean’s Community building process and further strengthening the existing ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit. Fourth, implementing existing and exploring other ASEAN priority areas of cooperation, including maritime cooperation, connectivity, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and economic and other possible areas of cooperation.
The Outlook is based on the principles of strengthening Asean Centrality, openness, transparency, inclusivity, a rules-based framework, good governance, respect for sovereignty, non-intervention, complementarity with existing cooperation frameworks, equality, mutual respect, mutual trust, mutual benefit and respect for international law, such as UN Charter, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and other relevant UN treaties and conventions, the AseanCharter and various Asean treaties and agreements and the EAS Principles for Mutually Beneficial Relations (2011).
There are four priority areas of cooperation under the Outlook: maritime cooperation, connectivity, United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and other areas of cooperation.
Currently, Asean is on the right track to achieve the goal on getting access to affordable and clean energy but is less behind to achieve other 16 goals of the SDGs, especially under the goal of peace, security and institutional building. There are huge challenges ahead for Asean to realize the SDGs.
The Outlook also recognizes the potential for cooperation with other regional mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions on issues of common interests through innovative, inter-disciplinary and complementary approaches based on the relevant Asean-led mechanisms.
To realise the Outlook, Asean needs the understanding and support from its dialogue partners, especially China and the US. The upcoming East Asia Summit and ASEAN Plus One Summit will be an important opportunity for Asean to convince its dialogue partners to support the Outlook.
The East Asia Summit (EAS) is the most important regional mechanism that involves all major powers. Hence strengthening the institutional capacity and impacts of this mechanism is vital for the future development of the Indo-Pacific.