Author: Aristyo Rizka Darmawan, University of Indonesia
The waters of the Indo-Pacific are heating up, with Beijing’s increasing activities in Southeast Asia pushing the United States and its allies into a flurry of political machinations to shore up their positions. Caught in the middle of these economic and security challenges, ASEAN countries need to formulate a coherent strategy that goes beyond norm-setting to actual implementation.
Recent visits to Southeast Asian countries by senior US officials include Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to Jakarta, Bangkok and Phnom Penh in late May 2021 and the visit by Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin to Singapore, Manila and Hanoi in early August. This was followed by Indonesian Minister for Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi travelling to Washington to meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken among others. These meetings highlight the importance of the US–Indonesia strategic partnership for a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.
There have also been political manoeuvres in the region from other major Western partners in the region. Following the visit of the United Kingdom’s HMS Queen Elizabeth earlier this year, Germany recently sent its own warship to the South China Sea for the first time in two decades. This increasing military presence in the disputed area aims to signal to Beijing that it should not provoke tensions.
All these events suggest the US–China rivalry in the region will not end any time soon. Indeed, it may be getting more intense. This makes it increasingly important for ASEAN to re-emphasise its centrality, neutrality and leadership in the Indo-Pacific. It is now two years since the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) was introduced during the body’s June 2019 summit. Initiated and pushed by Indonesia, the AOIP mainly aims to solidify ASEAN centrality. ASEAN now needs to evaluate to what extent the AOIP has been implemented and how it can better serve to face the challenges of the future.
Although the AOIP is not intended to establish a new venue or mechanism for ASEAN, it is important in allowing ASEAN to set an agenda in regards to Indo-Pacific cooperation. It presently highlights two important points — namely functional economic cooperation and the importance of the maritime domain. ASEAN now needs to ask how it can actually implement that agenda and how it can add additional points to address its needs.
Without such concrete steps, the AOIP will not be able to keep up with expectations. But this will be no easy task for ASEAN. Each member state has its own domestic interests so agreeing on a common implementation plan will be a challenge.
Indonesia proposed establishing the ASEAN Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity Forum to implement the economic cooperation agenda. The Forum is intended to ensure connectivity initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region complement and support the existing Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025. Effectively working towards these goals will put the AOIP on a path to tangible cooperation rather than vague norm-setting.
This is vital for ASEAN to rebuild its economy post-COVID-19 and achieve ASEAN-led infrastructure cooperation rather than solely following other countries’ agendas — such as with the Belt and Road Initiative. But unfortunately, the Forum that was scheduled for 2020 had to be postponed due to the pandemic.
The AOIP also highlights the importance of the maritime domain. As the Indo-Pacific is a maritime-driven concept, concrete implementation relating to oceanic issues is critical. Many issues need to be addressed, such as the maritime environment and pollution, exploitation of marine resources, transnational maritime crimes, maritime connectivity, the blue economy and marine science collaboration. The most pressing of these issues is climate change.
The ocean is an integral part of climate changes issues and the Indo-Pacific concept that connects two of the world’s most important oceans has a dominant role to play. This means climate change problems are crucial in any push by ASEAN to implement the AOIP. The grouping may be able to work through existing frameworks such as ASEAN Cooperation on Coastal and Marine Environment to engage broader Indo-Pacific states.
At present, the AOIP is more focussed on development-oriented issues and less on security issues such as unresolved maritime boundaries, freedom of navigation and overflight. But the fact that there is an increase in military footprints and manoeuvres occurring in the region means it is important for ASEAN to reformulate the AOIP to avoid increasing tension. ASEAN should develop a plan for tangible security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific so that member states can benefit from relations with both the United States and China.
With all these growing economic and security challenges in the Indo-Pacific, it is essential for ASEAN to optimise the AOIP to expand its agenda and take concrete steps to implement it. The time has come for ASEAN to really go beyond norm-setting.
Aristyo Rizka Darmawan is a Lecturer in International Law at the University of Indonesia and a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum.
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