Author: Shafiah F Muhibat, CSIS
What is the future of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP)? Nearly three years after its finalisation, there have been hardly any efforts to operationalise the report from within ASEAN or through engagement with ASEAN Dialogue Partners.
The AOIP was introduced at ASEAN’s June 2019 summit. The five-page report provides an ASEAN inspired guide to increasing cooperation and development in the Indo-Pacific region. It was released in response to greater strategic competition between the United States and China, and to reiterate the value of ASEAN institutional mechanisms, such as the East Asian Summit (EAS), in boosting maritime cooperation, connectivity and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The promotion of the AOIP is not as widespread as it was in its early days. There have been public references here and there in the past year,mostly from Indonesia and Dialogue Partners, but there have been hardly any real measures taken to implement its contents. Meanwhile, there have been enormous geopolitical shifts across the globe over the past three years. The COVID-19 pandemic, a more complex US–China geopolitical rivalry and the war in Ukraine all impacted the Indo-Pacific.
Operationalising the AOIP has been difficult for ASEAN because it lacks a collective outlook on how to respond to great power competition. This is due to the different levels of attachment ASEAN countries have to great powers, such as China and the United States, and their varying levels of commitment to ASEAN unity in foreign affairs. ASEAN member states remain ambivalent about the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ due to its malleability — making them seemingly unwilling to invest in the necessary political, economic and military resources to follow up on the AOIP.
ASEAN’s relationship with its Dialogue Partners, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, India and the European Union, among others, remains complex. The sustainability of ASEAN-led frameworks have often been dependent on its Dialogue Partners, especially since ASEAN has limited resources to maintain its own multilateral processes and platforms.
ASEAN’s limitations have been identified since the first decade of its existence. But its insistence on moving by consensus and doing things the ‘ASEAN way’ has proved to be less and less appealing to its Dialogue Partners in recent years — particularly in light of recent geopolitical shifts.
There are limits to what ASEAN can do to set the global agenda so long as ASEAN remains dependent on its Dialogue Partners for the sustainability of its initiatives. While Dialogue Partners respect ASEAN’s role in the region and its desire for greater Indo-Pacific cooperation, some take issue with its stated desire for inclusivity. Others have little faith in a mere ‘outlook document’.
The AOIP is unlikely to be operationalised unless there is a shift in ASEAN’s strategic relevance in the Indo-Pacific — a shift that could be made possible through investing sufficient resources in ASEAN institutional mechanisms and buy-in from Dialogue Partners.
While the AOIP is unlikely to have a meaningful effect in the region on its own, the idea that ASEAN should assert itself in the Indo-Pacific remains relevant. ASEAN initiatives, most notably the East Asia Summit (EAS), could further this goal. The EAS is the only leader-led forum at which all key Indo-Pacific countries meet to discuss political, security and economic challenges facing the region — and it serves as a key platform for ASEAN to assert its centrality.
The EAS has been criticized for being a ‘talk shop’ without any follow-up, concrete policy actions or focussed agenda. In response, there have been calls to institutionalise the EAS by creating a ‘Sherpa’ system under which the EAS would become a year-long engagement between delegates from attendee nations outside of the annual summit.
This system would bring the most critical issues to the attention of EAS leaders. It would make the EAS plenary more focussed, facilitate more informal interaction and limit the organisation’s membership — helping to create a summit that is truly ‘leader-led’. Instead of fixating on the shortcomings of the AOIP, ASEAN should focus on pursuing a more action-oriented EAS agenda.
The post-pandemic Indo-Pacific will require ASEAN to make adjustments to its institutions and underlying principles. There are plenty of challenges to its proper functioning — some of which have been left unresolved for decades, like the ASEAN mission to restore Myanmar’s democracy.
ASEAN’s historical practice of organising meetings and producing abundant consensus-based documents has worked to build trust and replace formal legal mechanisms. But this may not be sufficient going forward, as there is pressure on ASEAN to reform its structure and culture to respond to the changing security dynamics of the region.
The AOIP was unrealistic to suggest that ASEAN-led mechanisms are sufficient to address current and future challenges to the Indo-Pacific region. ASEAN-led mechanisms have substantial weaknesses that stem from the underlying principles of ASEAN. For ASEAN to maintain — or perhaps regain — its centrality to the region, relying on existing mechanisms will not be sufficient.
It is time to establish a regional institution that is equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century, even if that means reviewing some parts of the ASEAN Charter. Without that, ASEAN will not have the capacity to follow up on initiatives as substantial as the AOIP.
Shafiah F Muhibat is the Deputy Executive Director for Research at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
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