Author: Arizal Jakannihan, Gadjah Mada University
With its strong leader and pro-China outlook, analysts are skeptical about Cambodia’s pledge to “strengthen ASEAN centrality” under its presidency in 2022. The possibility of consolidating the ASEAN-centric region, as envisaged by ASEAN’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific, is also being questioned.
It is true that Outlook has several drawbacks, including the lack of an actionable policy. It is also based on the erroneous assumption that the existing ASEAN-led platforms are sufficient to stabilize tensions in the Indo-Pacific. And as geopolitical conflicts intensify, the document remains unclear and does not contain any detailed framework to link the different Indo-Pacific visions of ASEAN’s partners. The five-page document does not include a roadmap for implementation, making it little more than an aspirational statement.
Nevertheless, much of the criticism of the outlook is based on misconceptions about the operation of ASEAN. As Singapore’s veteran diplomat Bilahari Kaushikan puts it, ‘It is absolutely useless to criticize a cow for being an imperfect horse’. Without recognizing ASEAN’s modus operandi, some may overlook the degree of agency it can exercise through the document.
Outlook was never a strategy, let alone a treaty. It follows ASEAN’s tradition of maximizing member agency by refraining from using coercive power or imposing binding arrangements. Internal members can build consensus by agreeing on less-controversial areas of cooperation, leaving enough room to advance their various interests.
Rather than building a full-fledged security strategy, ASEAN’s strengths have long been in model-setting and confidence-building measures. Except for strategic consequences, Outlook’s exploits are articulated in the field of deliberation and dialogue where it naturally excels.
ASEAN demonstrated its centrality when it was able to ‘absorb different Indo-Pacific narratives’ argues Khanisa Krisman, a researcher at Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency.
ASEAN built further credibility by key negotiations involving locked partners in competition with each other, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which eventually entered into force in 2022. Without neutrality, ASEAN would not have been able to connect China with Australia, Japan and 12 other Asias. Pacific nations that now form the world’s largest single trading bloc.
And for the first time, China subscribed to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept in a joint statement commemorating the 30th year of China-ASEAN dialogue. Beijing reaffirmed the outlook’s principles, recognizing it as an ‘independent initiative’ of ASEAN, which is ‘open and inclusive’. The document marks a milestone for ASEAN in neutralizing the Indo-Pacific discourse, given China’s previously rejected response to the concept.
Similarly, four years after former US President Donald Trump’s ‘withdrawal’ from the region, Washington is showing a clear effort to return to the region by including ASEAN. Although US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s latest Indo-Pacific speeches in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur represent only an incremental development, the message is clear: ASEAN is indispensable to the United States.
As regional tensions rise, the need for an inclusive dialogue platform to avoid the ‘tipping point’ where conflict erupts, argues prominent Indonesian scholar Davy Fortuna Anwar.
ASEAN members also do not exclusively rely on the ASEAN Forum. While ‘buck-passing’ is evident in many instances – where ASEAN members defy difficult decisions for ASEAN as a whole – individual members may still pursue various strategies through loose institutionalization within ASEAN and its Indo-Pacific outlook. Huh.
ASEAN’s ‘agnosticism’ gives freedom to its members instead of imposing a limit. For example, Vietnam strengthened its ties with the Quad countries in 2020, demonstrating an equally strong commitment to ASEAN as the organization’s president.
Although the outlook omits the security focus, some members are still intensifying their defense arrangements – including the resumption of the Philippines’ Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, and Indonesia’s strengthening of defense ties with major Indo-Pacific countries. includes doing. United States, India and France.
It is misleading to assume that individual member states share the same threat perception regarding China. With its long history of colonialism and interference, ASEAN regards Beijing and Washington as equally untrustworthy. This means that preserving autonomy is still the ultimate goal.
By remaining neutral, ASEAN has been able to benefit from both China’s massive economic output and the US security network, while remaining equidistant from both.
Effective deterrence against China is still needed, yet the perceived degree of need varies greatly among ASEAN members. Differences in China’s perceptions and mechanisms targeting against it – such as the Quad and Auks – cannot be fully adjusted through consensus, so the outlook discards them and instead focuses on more palatable areas. Where everyone can agree.
These recent developments reflect the strengths of Outlook in maintaining ASEAN’s role as an agency and regional facilitator. It remains a platform which cannot be bypassed by external forces to protect their interests.
But while the outlook has moved in a positive direction, member states should also invest in extra-ASEAN options to strengthen their autonomy. Given its limitations, the outlook is best measured by ASEAN’s ability to promote inclusivity, build confidence and maximize the agency of its members. It is equally important to invest in other bilateral or minor relationships to achieve greater strategic outcomes.
Arizal Jaknanihan is an Assistant Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia. Some of the material referenced in this article was collected in interviews conducted during his research at the Research Center for Politics, Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency.