A woman (R) adjusts the Philippines flag before the 51st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)- Republic of Korea Ministerial Meeting in Singapore on August 3, 2018. Leaders, ministers and representatives are meeting in the city-state from August 1 to 4 for the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM). (Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

Revised Title ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ Hints at Ambivalence

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A shift in semantics in ASEAN's official response to new and emerging Indo-Pacific concepts shows that the grouping has yet to fully internalise the region as part of its strategic culture.

The original title of ASEAN’s official response on the Indo-Pacific was reportedly the “ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook”, which was revised at the eleventh hour to the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” (AOIP). This modification appears ordinary at first glance, but a closer look at the wording reveals the underlying ambivalence that ASEAN and some of its member states might still have with embracing the concept.

The formulation is subtle in form but arguably significant in substance. Semantically, the original title’s straightforward phrasing suggested ASEAN’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific as an ontological reality. In other words, it hinted at the Indo-Pacific being internalised as part of ASEAN’s strategic culture. The new title, however, yanks the term “Indo-Pacific” away from its cosy position beside ASEAN and places it at a discernible distance. It further dilutes the significance that the Indo-Pacific holds for ASEAN, situating it as an external object that is seen from the viewpoint of ASEAN more as a spectator than a proprietor.

The formulation is subtle in form but arguably significant in substance.

While ASEAN’s ability to issue a collective response to the Indo-Pacific concept reveals a degree of coherence within the grouping, the qualified title might suggest that its member states have adopted the AOIP more as an ASEAN common script without altogether internalising it to the same extent. This sense of vacillation is all the more apparent when one recalls that at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue held in early June, barely three weeks before the adoption of the AOIP, no ASEAN defence minister present, except for the defence ministers of Indonesia and the Philippines, mentioned the term “Indo-Pacific”.

What then is next after the adoption of the AOIP given the different degrees of acceptance or reluctance within ASEAN member states with regard to the Indo-Pacific? Although its content is a welcome re-affirmation of ASEAN’s cardinal principles and its pursuit of an open and inclusive regional order, it does not add much that is new to ASEAN’s strategic discourse. By offering an inclusive and cooperative Indo-Pacific narrative, the AOIP may help shield ASEAN member states from having to officially take sides in the unfolding major power rivalry, but practically some are already on their way to making binary choices. Would the AOIP be able to arrest this trend? Moving forward, how ASEAN could give full expression and effect to its AOIP, both internally and externally, remains to be seen and bears watching.