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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Adopting ASEAN’s Role in the Indo-Pacific

Adopting ASEAN's Role in the Indo-Pacific

The Indo-Pacific, which has many meanings from a country’s international strategic perspective to a wide region extending from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean, continues to retain its popularity among foreign policy practitioners and analysts today.

Countries such as the United States, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, as well as a regional institution such as the European Union (EU), have declared the Indo-Pacific as one of their primary foreign policy priorities. The arena is also often interpreted as the theater of the US-China Great Power Competition. Despite the dominance of global powers, ASEAN – a bloc consisting of small and medium power countries – should play a role in the Indo-Pacific given its central geographic location.

The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) Declaration in 2019 is a good starting point for the regional grouping to manage the dynamics in the region and transform it into established international cooperation. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 outbreak has hindered the development of the AOIP which has left the document on its implementation unclear. The organization is also facing a tough time dealing with internal problems such as Myanmar’s ongoing political unrest since the coup in February last year. The crisis has consumed much of ASEAN’s energy as the bloc receives constant pressure from the international community to take concrete action to address the problem. This situation contributes to the lack of ASEAN’s role in the Indo-Pacific in 2021.

Welcoming a new year under Cambodia’s presidency, there are, in my view, at least three major concerns for ASEAN if it aims to shift its focus to the Indo-Pacific.

First, the Southeast Asian bloc should be ready with more actors to join the Indo-Pacific club, potentially challenging “ASEAN centrality”, a term that reflects the group’s ambition to play a central role in the region and beyond. Refers to perform. Over the years, countries outside the region have begun to engage with the Indo-Pacific and have developed the term into their strategic approach. Most of his plans support ASEAN to play an important role in the Indo-Pacific. For example, a recent EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific document specifies that the European bloc supports ASEAN centrality and an ASEAN-led process.

Despite all these endorsements, maintaining centrality remains a challenging task. ASEAN is known as a group of countries which emphasize on norms for managing its internal and external relations. To lead and establish deeper cooperation within the Indo-Pacific region, ASEAN should begin by expanding its norms and principles based on the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation (TAC) to relevant actors.

However, spreading those values ​​will not be easy as more countries engage in the Indo-Pacific with their diverse interests. It is also fueled by the US-China rivalry that divides the countries into two distinct sides.

Second, ASEAN must address the intense competition among actors in the Indo-Pacific. Last year, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) resurgence and the Aukas establishment significantly changed the pattern of negotiations within the region. Both initiatives are seen as attempts by the US to counter China’s growing assertiveness towards neighboring countries.

Despite being a neutral side in this tussle, ASEAN needs to act when the increasing competition between these two great powers threatens the security of Southeast Asia. The regional organization should not only be a spectator of a potential arms race arising in the Indo-Pacific.

Responding to regional dynamics can help ASEAN maintain its relevance and function as a major player in its region. An official statement or declaration from ASEAN is required as a preliminary step. Unfortunately, this opportunity was missing when regional groups remained silent at the time of the announcement of the Aukas. Despite fears that AUKUS might escalate the rivalry in Southeast Asia, ASEAN did nothing.

Third, the situation in the Indo-Pacific may also affect the unity of ASEAN. It is no secret that member states have different preferences in engaging the great powers. With increased Sino-US competition, leaders of ASEAN countries need to keep an eye on the influence of these external parties that threaten regional harmony. Territorial issues may create further friction among the bloc members.

The long-running conflict over the South China Sea, one of the hot spots in the Indo-Pacific, is expected to further complicate the regional grouping. The Code of Conduct (CoC) negotiations with Beijing cannot be aligned with the interests of Southeast Asian claimant states under Cambodia’s ASEAN presidency. Cambodia has committed to ensure that the CoC is settled, however, considering Cambodia is its close ally and does not claim the disputed territory, the country is unlikely to stand up to China.

In addition to these three important points, it is imperative for the regional grouping to prepare for additional challenges, such as a new wave of COVID-19 variants and other geopolitical problems, that may hinder the group’s dedication to the Indo-Pacific this year. can generate. To play a bigger role in this area, ASEAN needs to revisit AoIP and take a collective voice in realizing the document.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASEAN Post.

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