After the US Trump administration’s adoption of the Indo-Pacific strategy in 2017, the idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a regional concept has since increasingly grown in salience, with different countries putting forward their own perspectives on the region.
What is the ‘Indo-Pacific’?
In broad terms, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is an imaginary space that links the Indian Ocean with the Asia-Pacific. The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is not new by any means, but countries around the region have become more invested in the concept amidst geopolitical shifts in the Asia-Pacific region.
All four members of the informal Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the ‘Quad’ – the United States, Japan, India and Australia – have each offered their own views on the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN, being right in the heart of the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific’, has also developed the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”.
However, an assessment by the Asia Strategy Initiative (ASI) shows that there is a significant difference in the geographical coverage of the Indo-Pacific.
The United States describes the Indo-Pacific region as ranging from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States, aligned with the Indo-Pacific Command’s area of responsibility. Meanwhile, Japan, Australia, and India define the Indo-Pacific as including the entire Indian Ocean from the eastern coast of Africa across the Pacific Ocean to the Americas. ASEAN does not regard it as a contiguous territorial space but as a closely integrated and interconnected region.
Origins of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’
Indian naval officer Capt Gurpreet S. Khurana formally introduced the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ in early 2007 in an article titled “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation.”
Later in August 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech to the Indian parliament entitled “Confluence of the Two Seas”, which talked about the “dynamic coupling” of the western Pacific and the Indian oceans as “seas of freedom and of prosperity”. Almost a decade later, Abe reiterated the idea and introduced the term ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP), which was echoed by Trump in his 2017 speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in Vietnam.
Indo-Pacific: To each their own?
Last year, the US Department of Defence published the “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” that outlined the nation’s vision and principles for a ‘free’ and ‘open’ Indo-Pacific.
In the report, the US defines a ‘free’ Indo-Pacific as one in which all nations, regardless of size, are able to exercise their sovereignty “free from coercion by other countries”, which seems to be pointed at China. Meanwhile, an ‘open’ Indo-Pacific strives to promote sustainable growth and connectivity in the region.
The US and Japan, along with India and Australia, have advocated for the maintenance of a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, with the same focus on free markets, maritime security and freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international rules and norms, as well as – and perhaps more importantly – ASEAN Centrality.
Similar to the other perspectives on the Indo-Pacific, the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP, or commonly referred to as ‘the Outlook’) talks about inclusivity, openness, good governance, and respect for international law. The Outlook has been officially welcomed by the US for its close complementarity with the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy. At the 22nd ASEAN+3 Summit Meeting in November last year, Prime Minister Abe also mentioned that Japan intended to pursue synergies between the Outlook and the FOIP, and contribute to enhancing connectivity for achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The Outlook itself does not introduce any radical new ideas. Instead, it chooses to reaffirm the existing ASEAN-led architecture (such as the East Asia Summit) and it envisages ASEAN Centrality as its underlying principle.
The broad areas of cooperation identified in the ASEAN Outlook are – maritime cooperation, connectivity, UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030, among others.
During the Jeju Forum – ISEAS Conference held in October last year, Ms Hoang Thi Ha said: “The Outlook continues ASEAN’s traditional ‘open-door’ policy which engages all ASEAN friends and partners.”
The lead researcher at the ASEAN Studies Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute added that ASEAN subscribes to an open, inclusive and rules-based regional order amidst heightened tendencies and pressures towards bipolarisation in regional politics.
Indo-Pacific responses to the US-China competition
Prof Zhu Feng, who was also present at the conference, cited several major reasons on China’s part for changes in the US-China relations: China’s growing assertiveness in foreign relations, technology innovation, President Xi Jinping’s overconfidence and the Chinese Dream of National Rejuvenation.
Prof Zhu, who is the Dean of the School of International Relations in the Nanjing University, thus viewed the Indo-Pacific strategy as some sort of “strategic regrouping” against the backdrop of power redistribution in the Asia-Pacific, with Japan, India and ASEAN being called into the American side in order to balance China.
While the US singles out China, Russia and North Korea as potential security threats, the Outlook stresses ASEAN’s role as an “honest broker within the strategic environment of competing interests”. This is clear in the way ASEAN has put a cautious emphasis on the idea of “inclusivity”, but avoids using the word “free” as the US and Japan have.
Ms Hoang said the Outlook is a pragmatic development-oriented approach which views the Indo-Pacific less as a security-driven phenomenon, but more as an economic and connectivity linked construct. The Outlook places emphasis on dialogue and economic functional cooperation, but it shies away from “strategic competition and the narrative of containment”.
All the other Quad members have slightly different stances with regards to the geopolitical changes in the region.
Australia, through its defence white papers, has implicitly argued for a balance between the United States and China. Japan’s FOIP is largely aligned with the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy, but it underscores the importance of “enhancing connectivity through quality infrastructure” beyond East Asia into the Middle East and Africa.
The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi articulated India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific as a “free, open, inclusive” region in his keynote address at Shangri La Dialogue in 2018. Like ASEAN, India’s use of the word “inclusive” seems to point to a strategy of “dodging”, as some have argued. However, Dhruva Jaishankar wrote in Brookings that India’s Act East Policy, in fact, allowed India to play a meaningful role in managing China’s rise, and help shape the regional order that was advantageous to Indian interests.
‘Lack of collective courage’
Ms Hoang commented that the problem with ASEAN has never been the absence of principles governing interstate relations.
For example, ASEAN has the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC). Signed in 1976 by leaders of the founding members of ASEAN, it established some of the defining principles of ASEAN, such as mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations, as well as non-interference in the internal affairs of one another.
There are also the “Bali Principles”, or the Principles for Mutually Beneficial Relations under the 2011 Declaration of the East Asia Summit, which also governs relations between states in the Southeast Asia region. Some of the principles include upholding international law, refraining from the use of military actions and settling disputes peacefully.
Ms Hoang argued: “The problem (with ASEAN) has been more of the lack of the collective courage to keep to such principles, especially by calling out the violations when they happen,” bringing up the example of the South China Sea.
On the issue of the South China Sea, ASEAN as a whole has maintained its neutrality on the merits of territorial claims, leaving any resolution to the claimants.
The Outlook, Aristyo Rizka Darmawan wrote, might “help the region in navigating and maintaining the peaceful South China Sea”. The current practice shows that the Southeast Asian nations do not have the same political views on which side to take, and that the political considerations are more fluid and led by national interest.
As such, the Outlook might strengthen the region with their own version on how ASEAN should engage with the Indo-Pacific region. Moreover, it can also set the rules of the game, by reiterating the regional commitment in respecting the rule of international law in the region, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Observing the recent events in the Natuna islands, it is possible that ASEAN will take a harder position against China, especially with Vietnam as the ASEAN chair. Indonesia – playing a key role in the ongoing negotiations over the proposed Code of Conduct – has been pushing for a united ASEAN approach to speak as one, instead of 10 distinct parties.
This may well be an opportunity for the Outlook to demonstrate ASEAN’s commitment to the principles that have been outlined in the document, to show what the ‘ASEAN unity’ really means.