Why ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific outlook matters

Indonesian president Joko Widodo delivers a speech in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8 August 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan).

Author: Amitav Acharya, American University

After more than a year of deliberation, ASEAN adopted the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ (the Outlook’) on 23 June 2019. The Outlook then got an airing at the ASEAN Regional Forum meetings in Bangkok. The Outlook document ‘provides a guide for ASEAN’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions’ and resembles an Indonesian-conceived plan.

The idea of the Indo-Pacific as a regional concept is not new and has been widely discussed in the policy community as a way to link the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and give greater recognition to the role of India and Indonesia in any regional strategic formulation. But the Indo-Pacific concept took on more life and meaning with the US Trump administration’s adoption of it.

As a leader of ASEAN, Indonesia is uncomfortable with the US approach, seeing it as an exclusionary and aimed at isolating China. Jakarta sees the ‘Quad’ — comprising the United States, Japan, Australia and India — as a potential strategic coalition of ‘outside’ powers without ASEAN’s involvement. In response, Jakarta has been developing an ASEAN-centred Indo-Pacific strategy that is more consistent with ASEAN’s principles of inclusiveness (including towards China), consensus-building, and stress on a normative, political and diplomatic — rather than an excessively military–strategic — approach.

The differences are captured in the terminology used by the two countries to articulate their Indo-Pacific visions. Briefly, the United States wants a ‘free’ and ‘open’ Indo-Pacific, echoing the wording used by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but with a more overt military–strategic orientation. In comparison, Indonesia seeks an ‘open’ and ‘inclusive’ Indo-Pacific. The United States does not use ‘inclusive’ while Indonesia does not use ‘free’.

The US idea of a ‘free’ Indo-Pacific identifies domestic political openness and good governance as …continue reading