ASEAN will look back at the unveiling of its Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) at the 34th Asean Summit in Bangkok last week as a moment of truth.
The 10-member regional grouping deserves credit for shedding light on its collective views on the Indo-Pacific – one of many sources of friction between the United States and China. While the AOIP broadly agrees with the propositions put forth by Australia, India, Japan and the US in viewing the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions as a seamless maritime space, it was also quick to stress that it is Asean that bridges the two entities.
Yet in stepping into the roiling waters of the Indo-Pacific debate, Asean has unwittingly brought more critical attention to its role as the region’s “honest broker” and its ability to sustain its claim to centrality in regional affairs.
Crucially, it has again brought to the fore questions on Asean’s relevance and position in the region’s fluid geopolitical and geo-economic environment.
There are no easy answers to these complex strategic questions. But it is a certainty that the answer will not come from serving out platitudes on Asean centrality.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not ceding ground to the mistaken view that centrality is a myth. What I am lamenting is the fact that Asean has taken centrality for granted for far too long and, as a result, has not invested additional political capital to build on the foundations of the region’s most comprehensive and sustainable fora, such as the East Asia Summit and Asean Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus.
Asean’s conservatism has allowed complacency to seep in, and the regional organisation appears to have forgotten the painful lessons of the 2008 Asia Pacific Community proposal which all but bypassed Asean and would have relegated its member states to mere pawns on the strategic chessboard controlled by the major and middle powers.
The Indo-Pacific proposals by some of Asean’s dialogue partners do not – at least we hope – harbour similar objectives. Nevertheless, Asean should try to understand the strategic underpinnings of these proposals, which are borne out of two primary considerations.
First, proponents of the Indo-Pacific concept are deeply concerned with China’s expanding power and influence in the region.
Such concerns are also widespread across Asean. A 2018 ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute survey showed that 45.4% of Asean respondents think that “China will become a revisionist power with an intent to turn South-east Asia into its sphere of influence”.
It must be noted that these concerns are not synonymous with being “anti-China”. Asean is not fearful of a powerful China, but it is apprehensive of the manner in which China uses its growing influence.
Second, and closer to home, the Indo-Pacific proposals are an indictment of Asean’s failure to measure up to its self-ascribed role as the facilitator of regional cooperation for peace, security and prosperity.
Frustrations had been mounting for years over the regional grouping’s stranglehold on Asean-led processes, leading to calls by some parties to introduce a system of co-chairmanship with an Asean member state and a dialogue partner.While all the four Indo-Pacific proposals affirm Asean centrality, in reality, their proponents are seeking alternatives, if not to replace, then certainly to supplement Asean-led processes. This is the real “threat” that Asean faces with respect to the Indo-Pacific proposals.
At its core, Asean centrality rests on its acceptance by the major powers. The days where being the weakest and non-threatening are the only criteria for being the most “acceptable” entity by the major powers to perform the role of facilitator for regional discourse and cooperation are numbered, if not over.
In addition, the major powers are increasingly judging Asean’s relevance in functional terms. Asean now finds itself in a relatively uncharted territory where “performance” is adjudged to be more important. In short, Asean needs to realise that the best guarantee to maintaining centrality is by making Asean work for itself and for its dialogue partners. It goes without saying that, in order to be relevant, Asean needs to matter in the first instance.
The AOIP sets out the construction of an “Indo-Pacific region of dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry” as one of its key elements.
Given increasingly competitive and polarising US-China relations and other major power dynamics in the region, namely, Indo-China and Japan-China, Asean finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to choose sides.
This strategic dilemma has been anathema to Asean, as explained by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong towards the conclusion of Singapore’s Asean chairmanship in 2018. “It is very desirable for us not to have to take sides, but the circumstances may come where Asean may have to choose one or the other. I hope it does not happen soon,” he said.
Sceptics have pointed out that some Asean member states have indeed chosen sides with their economic embrace of China’s largesse. What’s more, the pressure to pick a side will continue to mount with time, not go away.
But Asean’s options are not confined to either making or avoiding a decision. Certainly, it should not conflate “not taking sides” with inaction. Indeed, Asean should act proactively in protecting and furthering its interests.
Rather than trying to stay above the fray of the US-China major power rivalry – or other disputes – Asean should not shy away from taking positions based on the principles of international law and universal conventions.
Shifting the focus from “taking sides” to “taking positions” allows Asean to regain the initiative in the regional discourse in three important respects.
First, an active diplomatic stance increases Asean’s visibility and global standing. Taking positions enables Asean’s voice to be projected and heard globally.
Second, having a voice also means having a say in determining the future of Asean and the region.
Third, adopting a “position approach” strengthens Asean centrality by giving substance to Asean’s voice. Speaking up allows the world to know what Asean stands for and underlines its relevance.
It will not be easy to transition from the “not taking sides” to “taking positions” paradigm. Foremost of these challenges would be Asean’s ability to reach consensus.
However, if Asean allows itself to be subsumed by the high burden of collective action, it will not progress far. At the same time, I would argue that discussions that fall short of consensus can still be regarded as successful by the fact that the discussion was even held.
The Outlook is a declaration that Asean will be the master of its own destiny. While it is not resistant to working with external parties, it will always privilege Asean’s interests above others.
Asean has found its voice. Now it must work harder on delivering a clear and consistent message. Asean should be working towards “taking positions”, not sides.
All in all, the Outlook has opened Pandora’s box on Asean’s vision of the region and its place within it. This is Asean’s defining moment in facing up to and responding constructively to nagging questions on its relevance.
Tang Siew Mun is head of the Asean Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. This was first published in The Star, Malaysia on 30th, June, 2019.