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A US Air Force B-52H Stratofortress bomber and two Koku Jieitai (Japan Air Self-Defence Force) F-15 fighters take part in a training mission over the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan on September 26 2018. Pacific Air Forces/Cover Images

How will ASEAN balance a tug of power between China and US-led ‘Quad’ in the Indo-Pacific?

Southeast Asia is on the cusp of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. That makes the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) an intrinsic part of a discourse on the “Indo-Pacific” geopolitical concept. Introduced by Japan, India, Australia and the United States (US), it partly serves to “contain” China in the region.

How will ASEAN and its members balance strategic alignments and economic interests with the other heavyweight powers in the region? This tightrope is bound to be a defining feature of ASEAN’s foreign policy in the years ahead.

‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’

The Indo-Pacific region can be considered a maritime zone bordered by the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and including all states within the spectrum.

In 2017, the US adopted the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) concept in the US National Security Strategy. This concept emphasises principles of freedom of navigation, rule of law and sovereignty for countries in the region.

Japan, India, Australia and the US make up the “Quad”, the strategic grouping that the FOIP espouses. The Quad is not explicitly projected as an alliance against Chinese influence over the region. But it appears to at least partly serve that purpose. In fact, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono stated in 2017 that the Quad seeks to “contain” China.

China’s response

China has looked down on the Indo-Pacific concept. The Chinese foreign minister has stated that the idea would “dissipate like foam”. Yet China has made significant overtures in the eastern Indian Ocean, due to the economic value of the sea lines of communication (routes used for trade and defence) passing through it.

China has increased its naval expeditions in the eastern Indian Ocean and has “encircled” the Indian coastline by investing in the construction of several ports in South and Southeast Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Myanmar.

In the Western Pacific, China’s claims to the South China Sea and construction and deployment of missiles on disputed islands have also troubled ASEAN for some time now.

A file picture dated May 11 2015 shows an aerial view of alleged artificial islands built by China in disputed waters in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines.

ASEAN strategic alignments

For its part, ASEAN does not yet have a unified outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific is most likely, as usual, to be shaped by the dual forces of strategic alignments and economic interests.

Apart from India and China, ASEAN has to contend with potential alignments with the three other members of the Quad, all of whom are vying for influence in the Indo-Pacific.

Some ASEAN member states are concerned about the strategic alignment between Japan, India, Australia and the US, worrying that these countries will leave ASEAN out in the cold.

However, there is tacit support for the idea among some members. Vietnam, for example, has close ties with India and appears “receptive” to the FOIP. Similarly, Indonesia has also shown some support with the unveiling of an “Indo-Pacific cooperation concept” earlier this year.

Five Southeast Asian countries, namely Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, also recently stated that they would support Japan’s idea of FOIP (after Japan announced development aid to the Mekong Delta).

In contrast, in May 2018, Singapore’s foreign minister said the city-state would not commit to the FOIP yet. Going forward, ASEAN member states will likely pick and choose their strategic alignments with all, some or none of the big powers as suits their interests.

Economic interests

The strategic alignments are also underpinned by vital economic interests, given the Indo-Pacific’s vast economic value. Arguably the two largest regional trade agreements today – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), fall squarely within the Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN is vital to both – all ten members are part of RCEP while four, (Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei) are part of the CPTPP – alongside other Indo-Pacific players such as India, China, Australia and Japan. The eventual ratification of these agreements could serve as a stability mechanism in the region and is bound to factor into the foreign policy mix for ASEAN.

Maritime security partnerships

The Indo-Pacific dynamic will also impact maritime security in Southeast Asia. India is keen to court ASEAN in developing greater maritime cooperation as a counterweight to Chinese military flexing.

Given its size and military prowess, India could be an effective partner for ASEAN members to bolster their defence capabilities and preserve national interests along their shores. Such partnerships (or relevant rhetoric at least) are already under way.

On the other hand, China too is a strategic partner of ASEAN. The first ASEAN-China maritime exercise (a ground-based simulation without actual drills) took place in August 2018.

In managing the strategic alignments mentioned earlier, ASEAN members will likely develop new maritime security partnerships or bolster existing ones as they seek to maintain stability along their waters.

Such partnerships will likely focus on maritime “chokepoints”, such as the Malacca Strait, which can be used to control access to the vital sea lines of communication.

They will also potentially be of a bilateral nature (as countries look out for individual interests) or involve groupings in specific zones, such as littorals of the eastern Indian Ocean. Such regional security mechanisms have already been mentioned by actors such as Singapore. In short, ASEAN’s waters are likely to see much more maritime action than before.

Potential challenges

Finally, ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making culture, coupled with economic disparities and differing geopolitical alignments between members, will pose challenges for the bloc in the face of external pressures in the Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN has traditionally derived strength from its unity in dealing with major powers. However, the Indo-Pacific conundrum appears to be an issue that could test that unity. The failure to release a joint communique on the South China Sea (a key subset of the Indo-Pacific) at the ASEAN Ministers’ Meeting in 2012 was a notable example of such breakdown.

Although ASEAN currently presents a mostly united front, the beginning of negotiations with China this year on a code of conduct for the South China Sea could prove difficult and deepen potential chasms between members.

Differences in the members’ viewpoints on the Indo-Pacific zone itself could further muddle the process of adopting some sort of cohesive response. To this end, Indonesia’s recent efforts to lead the way in outlining an ASEAN Indo-Pacific outlook are steps in the right direction.

An uncertain future

All put together, the resurgence of the “Indo-Pacific” offers ASEAN both opportunities and challenges. ASEAN faces tough, unavoidable choices in the region. How it navigates those waters will be critical to its own future as well as that of the Indo-Pacific zone.

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