US Trade Representative Katherine Tai (centre) speaks during a ministerial pillar meeting at the Indo-Pacific Economic Ministerial in Los Angeles, California, on September 8, 2022. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown, AFP).

ASEAN’s Engagement in the Indo-Pacific


ASEANFocus invites experts to assess ASEAN’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific and how the region can advance its role in shaping the regional architecture amid the shift in the geopolitical landscape.

Editor’s Note:
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2022 published in September 2022. Download the full issue here.

The ASEAN Outlook in the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) was adopted in 2019. However, considering the growing number of Indo-Pacific strategies in the region and the growing geopolitical rivalry, would the AOIP be sufficient for ASEAN to play a leading role in the region?

MUHIBAT: ASEAN is at the centre of the Indo-Pacific, with or without the AOIP. ASEAN’s centrality in the regional architecture is necessary to establish a rules–based order and prevent extra-regional powers from shaping the region. However, we hardly see efforts to strategise or operationalise the Outlook, both from within ASEAN and from the dialogue partners, aside from the occasional references — coming mainly from Indonesia and some dialogue partners — the AOIP is mentioned because it is the norm to mention it. As much as we would like to see positive progress in the implementation, this is the current reality.

My positive take on the AOIP: first, we have a reference to the Indo-Pacific, meaning that we do not have to refer to other countries’ or regions’ definitions of the Indo-Pacific. Second, there is now a “norm” for other countries to mention or refer to the AOIP when they want to issue their own strategy document. Third, ASEAN has a footprint in the Indo-Pacific.

My point is, let’s not be fixated on the shortcomings of the AOIP; instead, efforts could be made through a more action-oriented agenda, through other existing frameworks like the East Asia Summit, or even bilaterally when appropriate.

Indonesia has proposed to mainstream the four priority areas of the AOIP within ASEAN-led mechanisms. What is your assessment of this proposal? Would it receive the support of key dialogue partners of ASEAN, especially China and Russia?

MUHIBAT: The AOIP was issued in 2019. Now, in 2022, 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. This means that there are now new challenges and new opportunities prompting new priorities for many countries. Thus, the four priority areas might no longer be priority areas for many countries, as they are now focusing on pandemic recovery and the global food and energy crises. Nonetheless, dialogue partners have voiced their support for the key priority areas in the Outlook.

Which priorities would be “actionable”, and when, will depend on how committed ASEAN is in promoting these four areas. Looking at this from a bigger picture: ASEAN’s relations with its dialogue partners and the sustainability of ASEAN-led frameworks have been dependent on the interests of dialogue partners, particularly as ASEAN has limited resources to strengthen its multilateral processes and platforms. As long as ASEAN is dependent on dialogue partners for the sustainability of its activities, there will be a limit to what ASEAN can do to set the agenda.

President Joe Biden and Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson announce the AUKUS alliance in Washington DC, on 15 September 2021. (Photo: Kent Nishimura, Los Angeles Times).

Several ASEAN countries remain ambivalent about the Indo-Pacific and there is no coherent view within ASEAN on this relatively new construct. Would this limit ASEAN’s proactiveness in its engagement and lead to disunity within ASEAN?

BUSBARAT: The ambivalence about the Indo-Pacific concept amongst ASEAN member countries certainly poses challenges to ASEAN. First, each country will find it difficult to make decisive support to the Indo-Pacific as doing so may signal a wrong message that they choose the US over China, which is a message many countries do not want to be seen sending. The Indo-Pacific construct is mainly promoted by external powers, especially the US and its partners and allies. Indo-Pacific is therefore increasingly viewed as being more security-oriented and part of a strategy to contain China. Therefore, it is unavoidable many ASEAN countries will have to take this into consideration, particularly when US-China competition is intensified.

This position reflects a different degree of economic and political reliance on China in some countries. Eventually, the different views and support of the Indo-Pacific will set a limit on how much ASEAN as a group can play a role or engage with this new regional construct. Similar to the challenges in the South China Sea, ASEAN will face difficulty finding a common position, risking being a battleground amongst great powers.

Cooperation is growing within US-led minilateral groupings such as the QUAD and AUKUS. How can ASEAN retain its relevance in the regional security architecture?

HEYDARIAN: The emergence, and subsequent institutionalisation of US-led minilateral groupings with a clear military dimension, is partly a reflection of rising concerns over China as well as declining confidence in ASEAN’s role as the engine of regional integration. To be fair, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the QUAD, is by no means an “Asian NATO”. It lacks the basic institutional structures and strategic principles, which undergird the Western alliance.

India, a pivotal member of the QUAD, has repeatedly emphasised its ‘non-aligned’ strategic orientation, which has been on full display amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. As for AUKUS, it’s a strategic project still in its infancy, therefore, it may be too early to assess its long-term impact on the Indo-Pacific landscape. Nevertheless, it’s crystal clear that the driving force behind the emergence of such minilateral arrangements is the rise of China as the predominant indigenous power in Asia.

In your view, would ASEAN countries consider joining a QUAD-plus arrangement? Would such an arrangement complement or compete with ASEAN-led mechanisms?

TRAN: Vietnam would benefit by joining a QUAD-plus arrangement that diversifies the country’s supply chains. Vietnam’s high level of trade dependence on the Chinese market makes it extremely vulnerable to China’s economic coercion. Although members of the QUAD have said that the group does not intend to contain China, it is widely perceived as such, especially by Beijing. Therefore, to make Vietnam more comfortable in joining and to prevent the media from dubbing such an arrangement as QUAD-Plus, the group should come up with its own name that does not have the word QUAD.

ASEAN-led mechanisms offer venues for all major powers, including both China and the United States, to interact and sometimes work together on certain issues. However, when a major power (and their alliances) becomes the problem, QUAD-plus arrangements provide countries like Vietnam with alternative platforms that are more effective in addressing challenges. Thus, QUAD-plus arrangements would complement ASEAN-led mechanisms.

Quad Leaders’ Meeting in Tokyo, 2022. (Photo: Government of Japan Website).

How can ASEAN uphold its centrality in the Indo-Pacific and yet retain its “ASEAN Way” based on consultation and consensus?

HEYDARIAN: The end of the Cold War provided a unique opportunity for Southeast Asian nations to usher in a new geopolitical order – one driven by ASEAN principles of multilateralism, institutionalised dialogues, and peaceful management of disputes among all major regional actors. Over the past decade, however, it has become painfully clear that ASEAN lacks the ability to socialise major powers, especially China, into embracing the “ASEAN Way”. If anything, ASEAN has struggled to forge a united front on the most pressing geopolitical issues in the region, especially the South China Sea disputes.

ASEAN can step up to the occasion through a calibrated embrace of: (i) its own version of ‘minilateralism’, namely sustained cooperation among core members on key issues of shared concern, and (ii) adoption of “ASEAN Minus One”, majority-based decision-making on thorny issues (which render unanimity inherently impossible). As I have argued repeatedly, ASEAN will have to evolve or risk getting permanently relegated to the strategic sidelines.

Major powers are competing against each other in the Indo-Pacific through initiatives such as the China’s Global Security Initiative, and the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. How should ASEAN decide on its engagement and would ASEAN be seen as taking sides if it chooses to lean towards a particular initiative?

HOANG: ASEAN and its member states generally have little qualms about embracing economic and development-centric initiatives by major powers. This pragmatic and non-ideological approach to multi-vector economic engagement has enabled Southeast Asia to become a key node in international trade, FDI flows, and global supply chains. ASEAN should stay on this course although doing this would be more difficult, given the increasing trend towards securitisation of economic and technological domains due to the US-China strategic competition.

On security-centric proposals like the US-led Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP) or China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI), ASEAN has been cautious and refrained from band-wagoning with either. Refusing to endorse them wholesale while proactively seeking areas of convergent interests and keeping the region open, inclusive and rules-based are the principles that should guide ASEAN in navigating these contestations.

Seven ASEAN member states have joined the US’ Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). Do you see the framework as an important engagement in the Indo-Pacific?

TRAN: If Indo-Pacific countries look for market access as they do in traditional trade agreements, IPEF has little to deliver. However, if they wish to maintain US economic engagement in the region, IPEF is imperative. Looking at Australia’s and Philippines’ experiences under China’s economic coercion, regional countries understand the importance of keeping a US presence. When US domestic politics is less hostile toward free trade agreements, the engagement under IPEF could pave the way for it to re-join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

For now, the four pillars of IPEF – trade (including the digital economy); supply chains; clean energy, decarbonisation, and infrastructure; and tax and anti-corruption can help participating countries write new rules that are not only beneficial to their development but also prevent China’s domination. Although not all ASEAN members are joining the IPEF negotiations, the remaining countries can decide to join in the future.

Do you think the IPEF will further complicate or divide the regional bloc in view of other initiatives?

BUSBARAT: In my opinion, the IPEF is an important initiative to soften the image of a security-oriented Indo-Pacific. It is likely to be more constructive as the IPEF will offer another choice among various economic arrangements available in the region. It should be less confrontational than other US-led security initiatives engraved in the broad Indo-Pacific strategy, such as QUAD or AUKUS. ASEAN member countries, therefore, are more willing to engage in an initiative that is less political. I do not see that the IPEF, if it remains focused on the economic realm, will further divide the region.

The region has already been familiarised and experienced with different layers of economic arrangements, whether it be wider multilateral or minilateral, such as the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), CPTTP, and other ASEAN FTAs with dialogue partners, as well as various sub-regional economic cooperation. Some of these arrangements are spearheaded by external powers. Therefore, the IPEF will be another venue for collaboration amongst like-minded countries, which will offer economic benefits to the region as a whole.

H.E Wang Yi delivers the ASEAN-China Regional Policy Speech in July 2022. (Photo: Kusuma Pandu Wijaya, ASEAN Secretariat).

Do you foresee the emergence of a new security architecture i.e. one that is US-led and the other China-led replacing the ASEAN-centered regional architecture?

HOANG: That prospect should not be ruled out. In fact, it may be in the making as international politics post-Ukraine war has become deeply bipolarised between the invigorated US-led alliances and the entrenched Sino-Russian axis. In Southeast Asia, ASEAN still holds the middle ground but its post-Cold War ambition of fostering cooperative security among the major powers is now out of reach. Another trend of concern is that Washington and its allies’ approach towards China has turned more competitive and hard balancing-oriented whereas ASEAN and its member states remain strategically ambivalent. Their policy towards China is based on accommodation rather than confrontation, engagement instead of de-coupling. That may mean Washington and its allies/partners would decide to invest significantly more in their minilateral coalitions than in ASEAN multilateralism. In opposite, Beijing would step up its statecraft to ASEAN and its member states, co-opting them towards adopting the Chinese norms and discourse on regional order and global governance. ASEAN must work harder to keep all major powers continuously engaged and maintain the balance of their influence in the region.

Pongphisoot Busbarat is Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations, Chulalongkorn University. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Richard J. Heydarian is a Lecturer at the Asian Center, University of the Philippines.

Hoang Thi Ha is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Shafiah F. Muhibat is Deputy Executive Director for Research at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia.

Bich Tran is a Visiting Fellow, Southeast Asian Young Leaders' Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).